Voices: Pink roast turkey and soggy vegetables: An NHS Christmas dinner? No thanks!

Every patient gets a Christmas cracker and a present – it’s usually a wash bag or socks (Getty Images)
Every patient gets a Christmas cracker and a present – it’s usually a wash bag or socks (Getty Images)

I’m spending Christmas Day in a west London NHS hospital ward. I’m here with my dad, 91, and my two kids – Lola, seven, and Liberty, five.

Like many other people in hospital right now who should be at home, my dad is set to endure the misery of being stuck in a hospital bed over Christmas. He arrived in an ambulance to A&E and now he has recovered fully from a serious chest infection and delirium. He’s stranded here over Christmas – he’s known as a “bed blocker” – despite being ready to go home. That means I’m trapped here, too. It is not the type of Christmas we had in mind a week ago, that’s for sure.

NHS chief Amanda Pritchard admits that the junior doctors’ strike is causing discharge delays from hospitals due to staff shortages (there are fears that this week’s strike will delay the discharge of 13,000 patients who are ready to leave hospital). There is also limited social care and community services capacity during the NHS’s most intense period at Christmas.

This means that it is total mayhem in UK hospitals – and I’m experiencing it first-hand.

My dad is waiting for a six-week NHS reablement package to get him back on his feet at home. It usually takes two to three days to action, but right now it’s taking longer – and that’s very bad news a few days before Christmas, especially with a weekend coming up.

If we take him home for Christmas before the care package is confirmed, we risk losing it – or delaying it further, because they will assume we can manage. If we bridge the gap privately, they will cancel it because we are self-funders. The extra care he needs for the short term is on top of his own privately funded live-in carer – and, believe me, it’s not cheap.

So, while others are meticulously working through Nigella’s Christmas cookbook, I’m getting my head around an NHS Christmas. My fridge is empty. I’d spent ages trying to work out whether to order a Christmas food delivery to his house, where we were supposed to celebrate Christmas – but have now missed all the slots. I will have to borrow the hospital ward’s microwave to heat up some ready-made Christmas food.

He won’t eat the hospital Christmas lunch – and I don’t blame him. The Christmas menu includes a meagre portion of pinkish roast turkey and soggy vegetables, followed by a mince pie or Christmas pudding. Every patient gets a Christmas cracker and a present – it’s usually a wash bag or socks.

I will, however, be serving ready-cooked roast beef and Brussels sprouts, sweet potato and red cabbage from Whole Foods for our make-do lunch. My kids won’t eat it, though – and there won’t even be a restaurant open to buy a quick margherita pizza on the nearby high street, because everywhere is as dead as a doornail on Christmas Day.

The only option for them is pasta in a flask to keep it warm – just like they get for school packed lunches.

I’ve got the Christmas crackers by the door, and all the presents to wrap. I’ll sneak in a G&T for my dad. No doubt we will end up stuffing our faces with chocolates if I feel safe enough to remove my face mask.

We are lucky as my dad is in a ward that is well-staffed – and I have to say the care has been amazing during the strike, and the staff are so kind. But the truth of the matter is that my dad isn’t seriously ill anymore. He should be allowed to leave without incurring a penalty.

I’m not blaming my wrecked Christmas on the junior doctors’ strike by any means. I am fully behind doctors getting a pay increase – and not fleeing the UK for jobs abroad.

I sympathise with their fury with the health secretary Victoria Atkins calling junior doctors “doctors in training” (despite the fact the BMA said they preferred it to the “infantilising” term “junior doctors”). The truth is these “junior” doctors are fully qualified and save lives every day. Their demand for a 35 per cent pay rise is surely well-deserved.

But why did they have to strike at Christmas just as the NHS comes under its most intense pressure of the year? Is it to inflict the maximum possible disruption in an already overstretched NHS? Or because the strike mandate for junior doctors expires in February?

The timing leaves a nasty taste in my mouth – the people who we trust to care for us are abandoning us at the worst possible time. But whether junior doctors are right or wrong to strike over this Christmas period (with more dates scheduled for early January), the government needs to fund the NHS better.

If they could just give my dad’s bed to somebody who actually needs it, and let my dad go home, then we all might have a better Christmas. Sending my dad home is far cheaper for the NHS than keeping him there. If they encouraged us to look after him temporarily at home before the care package starts, we could all help each other.

I just wish that was an option, because right now, all I want for Christmas is for us all to go home.