Boy Sleeping on Hospital Floor: Politics, Apologies & Fake News 

Tim Locke

December 11, 2019

The NHS was always going to play a key role in the general election campaign but one family's experience of a hospital's winter pressures went viral.

A 4-year-old boy called Jack was admitted to Leeds General Infirmary with suspected pneumonia.

He was seen and treated but no beds were available for him in the paediatric emergency department. His mum took a picture of him sleeping on a pile of coats on the hospital floor.

The image appeared in the Daily Mirror and Yorkshire Evening Post – and Jack became the poster boy for the NHS pressures – and the focus of general election controversy.

However, one emergency department consultant tells us that for many working in emergency departments, Jack's case is all too familiar.

Personal Apology 

Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust quickly apologised to the family.

In a statement Chief Medical Officer Dr Yvette Oade, said: "Our hospitals are extremely busy at the moment and we are very sorry that Jack’s family had a long wait in our Emergency Department. Our Chief Executive Julian Hartley has spoken to Jack’s mum and offered a personal apology.

"We have seen a significant increase in the number of people visiting our Paediatric Emergency Department, and this week we saw the highest attendances we have seen since April 2016. Despite this, our staff are working tirelessly to provide the best possible care under these extreme pressures.

"Jack was quickly assessed upon arrival and seen in two different clinical treatment rooms in the Paediatric Emergency Department.

"Within 4 hours a decision was made to admit Jack to our Children’s Assessment and Treatment (CAT) Unit for further monitoring overnight. Unfortunately, the unit was also experiencing exceptionally high levels of demand which meant that Jack was required to wait in the clinical treatment room in the Paediatric Emergency Department until a bed became available. Jack was admitted to the CAT Unit later that evening and was discharged home the following morning after a medical review.

"We are extremely sorry that there were only chairs available in the treatment room, and no bed. This falls below our usual high standards, and for this we would like to sincerely apologise to Jack and his family."

Politics and Fake News

The case was brought into greater focus when a local TV reporter confronted Boris Johnson with the image on his phone of Jack on the hospital floor. The Prime Minister wouldn't look at the picture and took the phone and put it in his pocket. He later apologised to the family.

Labour said the case highlighted the Conservative's failings on the NHS and the PM's lack of empathy.

Labour also accused the Conservatives of trying to distract attention from Jack's case with a false claim about an aide of Health Secretary Matt Hancock being punched outside a hospital.

Having allowed two newspapers to use the image Jack's mum became concerned about her son being used as a "political football". A request was made on her behalf to the press regulator IPSO to try to stop wider use of the image.

The case then took another twist with claims the mother staged the picture when a hospital trolley had been available. The person making that claim said they knew a nurse at the hospital who told them the picture was fake.

However, Facebook had the post fact-checked and later marked it as 'false information'.

'Stark Reminder'

Jack's mum did not blame hospital staff for Jack's care, telling the Mirror: "I don’t have any issues with the doctors and the nurses, they were really lovely people and I want to make that clear."

She continued: "I would like to thank the doctors and the nurses and the health care assistants because they were really good, really helpful.

"But I’m angry at the lack of funding and the lack of beds because I think that is failing our children."

Dr Dan O'Carroll who writes on emergency medicine issues for Medscape UK commented: "The picture of the little boy would come as no surprise to anyone working in emergency medicine over the last few years, there will be daily examples of this across the country as over-stretched and under-resourced departments do the best that they can. We would all be able to give examples of similar cases. The picture was a stark reminder that behind the record poor figures regarding emergency department performance, there is a human cost and someone suffering care that is below what we would expect for our own loved ones."

Editor's note: This article was updated to clarify the approach to IPSO being made on the mother's behalf.

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