Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The great Beach Body backfire

Bright yellow advertisements for weight loss products have improved/degenerated the commute for Londoners on the tube network in the past few weeks. These ads scream the stupid question: "ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?" at us alongside a picture of a woman in a bikini looking both slim and impressive of bosom all at once. In other words, she possesses a body type few of us have thanks to Mother Nature, some of us will attain through assorted methods, and most of us will never have.

In reality, if you share the model's waist size, you are more than likely to be small-breasted. If you share her generous cup size, the rest of you may well be in proportion too. Of course, there are exceptions as there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to body type - and that is why it is ridiculous that body types go in and out of fashion over the decades.

The obvious answer to the stupid question is: "Yes, I am beach body ready. I have a body and I am capable of taking it to the beach where I will be ready to do beach-related things."

There has been an outcry over these ads. The Advertising Standards Authority received more than 200 complaints. The posters have been improved/vandalised by protesters. I saw one on the tube tonight that had "Stop objectification" written on it.

So what has happened as a result of the brouhaha? Sales of the weight loss products went up.

Of course they did. Proving that any publicity is good publicity, the winner is Protein World. Which sounds like the worst-ever amusement park.

The two most likely reasons for this sales spike are equally depressing. If people have decided to spite those awful feminists by buying Protein World products, they are a bit sad. They are probably the same idiots who hijacked the #FeministsAreUgly hashtag on Twitter.

And the other equally depressing reason why Protein World got a boost in sales is that people wanted to see what all the fuss was about, decided they were not "beach body ready" and, as a result, have been conned into buying a completely moronic product. We are talking about capsules and meal replacements. Short-term quick fixes.

It is a get-rich-quick scheme for Protein World that does nothing to promote learning to prepare healthy meals or the benefits of regular exercise. These shysters are selling crap like "green tea extract powder" for £12. You can buy 80 green teabags for £2.80 today at Sainsburys. They're even fair-trade teabags.

So it would seem Protein World is appealing to snide feminist-haters, uneducated consumers and people desperate for a quick fix rather than a healthy lifestyle change.

Changing your lifestyle is boring but it works out cheaper and more effective in the long run than replacing meals with a £62 package of "The Slender Blend" meal replacement potion and multivitamin capsules.

If you bought Protein World products because you hate feminists, the joke is on you. You are now the proud owner of stupid, overpriced supplements all because you wanted to make a pathetic point. If you were fooled by the advertising campaign and truly think replace meals with overproduced slop in a glass is the way forward, I feel sorry for you. You have been tricked by a marketing campaign where not only does the model have a rare body type, she also has the benefit of good lighting and possibly the miracle of PhotoShop.

Protein World and similar companies will continue to use such models for their campaigns. Of course they will. Let's be realistic. Ann Widdecombe will not be the next face and body of Protein World.

But that does not mean you have to be an idiot consumer. All this beach body brouhaha has demonstrated is that many people are easily fooled. And that is most depressing of all.

Photography by Gerhard Lipold

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

St Helier Hospital, the political football that keeps getting a kicking...

We didn’t want to be right but we knew we were. While people from the major parties were telling the public that St Helier Hospital was safe, we – as in my fellow Keep Our St Helier Hospital (KOSHH) campaigners and I – knew the hospital was far from safe.

We suspected as much when we took the time to read a little-known document, the South West London Collaborative Commissioning strategy document. Yes, I am sure it is on your bedside table right now too. In short, it outlines strategies for “efficiency savings” (Read: cuts) for hospitals across South West London. It telegraphs keeping all services at St Georges Hospital in Tooting (as seen on Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E) at the expense of services at either Epsom, St Helier or Croydon University Hospitals, or a combination of the three.

This makes sense from an axeman’s point of view because St Georges has a PFI debt and this basically makes it too big to fail. St Georges has enjoyed the addition of a helipad, it is a major trauma centre for vast swathes of England, it occupies a huge site just off Tooting Broadway, it is at breaking point. St Helier Hospital is a handy back-up for St Georges. As well as taking its own patients in A&E and maternity, it is a place for St Georges to send ambulances and women in labour when it’s at full capacity.

And, in the midst of threats to St Helier Hospital, a new and misleading narrative emerged. 

The major parties, all desperate to look like they are serious about local health services, all desperate to win the forthcoming election, started parroting the line from the trust itself that St Helier Hospital was “safe for five years”. This has appeared on leaflets that local politicians have shoved through my front door. And, yes, we all knew there were plans for an overhaul of local services in the next few years and the strategy document tells us that after that, vital services at St Helier and Epsom Hospitals (the two hospitals that make up the Epsom-St Helier Hospital Trust) could be eliminated. 

So that is where this “safe for five years” line has come from.

We’re talking about the elimination of piddling little things like A&E, maternity, paediatric intensive care and the renal unit, no biggie… Except that without these, other services are then imperilled – the assisted conception clinic works with maternity, the fracture clinic works with A&E, the eye clinic that works with anyone with eyes, and so on and so forth…

The strategy document is just a reheated version of the farcically named “Better Service, Better Value” review that cost taxpayers at least £8 million, including (and this will become relevant soon…) loads of our damn money spent on hiring private consultancy firms to advise on how to best carve up local healthcare services.

Still, the major parties kept parroting the mindless “safe for five years” rhetoric. As if that is good enough. As if aiming for such a low target of five years of service followed by an abyss of uncertainty for patients and staff was somehow acceptable. As if nobody bothered to ask why, when all the proposals that have been bandied about will involve expenditure, investment in making Epsom and St Helier Hospitals as good as they can possibly be was not on the table.

And then last week it all kicked off.

First, Nick Clegg and incumbent LibDem MP for the constituency of Carshalton and Wallington, Tom Brake, thought it’d be a jolly wheeze to stroll on the green opposite St Helier Hospital for a photo opportunity. Just a photo opp, mind. They had no intention of taking questions about the hospital or the wider NHS. But 18 hours before the event, word got out that they were going to descend on the green. Protesters from KOSHH, the National Health Action Party, the Labour Party and the Greens did a great job of disrupting things. Good.

A tragic, orange placard-waving LibDem rent-a-crowd fawned over Nick Clegg as he said, with a straight face, that the cadaverous Tom Brake had worked really hard to keep the hospital open. Hint: Tom Brake has done no such thing. All he did was set up an e-petition so long ago, it is now addressed to the wrong body. I have no idea when he plans to hand it in or to whom. The only thing the e-petition has achieved is a bigger mailing list for Brake’s propaganda emails. A lot of people signed the e-petition in good faith. A lot of people have been taken for mugs.

And then, that very afternoon, an astounding story broke on the BBC. The story that showed KOSHH campaigners are not a bunch of scaremongering cranks after all. 

Representatives of a private consultancy firm were overheard on a train to Waterloo talking about a proposal to build an 800-bed “super-hospital” on the site of Sutton Hospital, a place that died the death of a thousand cuts and is now a depressing, largely abandoned site and the recent victim of an arson attack.  

And why the hell do we keep spending taxpayer money on private consultants? Oh, that’d be because the wretched Clinical Commissioning Groups, created by the Tories and the LibDems under the rancid Health and Social Care Act 2012, force doctors to become experts in things other than medicine and they require expensive, external advice. This advice isn't necessarily in the best interests of accessible patient care, mind you...

But local Tories and LibDems would sooner enjoy a napalm enema than admit that the actions of their parties in the House of Commons have put St Helier Hospital in jeopardy.

Instead, we are witnessing desperation politics of the highest order as local party stooges attempt to shut down discussion about the Health and Social Care Act or use the tired old cliché of “Don’t use the hospital as a political football!” to try and shut down debate. Sorry, kids, it is political. There is no way around that. Deal with it or pipe down and let the grown-ups talk.

Jeremy Hunt, the failed marmalade mogul who passes for the Secretary of State for Health, intervened, presumably after a panic-stricken call from local Tories who were seeing their hopes of winning the seats of Carshalton & Wallington and Sutton & Cheam evaporate before their very eyes.

In world record time, Hunt released a hastily chucked-together statement saying that a Conservative government would block any plans to build a hospital on the Sutton site. Slippery as ever, he did not actually mention blocking any plans to close either Epsom or St Helier Hospitals.

I have a few questions at this juncture. Firstly, why the hell would anyone trust anything this man has to say on the NHS? Secondly, did he really have time to read all three proposals in full, including costings, in the midst of an election campaign in order to make such a bold promise? Thirdly, given Jane Ellison said, when she was Health Minister, that the government has lost control of the NHS and that this is "exciting", can Hunt make such a promise at all? (Also, Jane Ellison's idea of excitement and my idea of excitement are two very different things...).  

Other proposals are a rebuild for St Helier and a refurbishment for Epsom Hospital. But, according to the BBC, the Sutton plan is the “preferred option” just as a plan to cut A&E and maternity from St Helier Hospital was the “preferred option” under the wasteful Better Service, Better Value programme.

So, there you have it. The BBC has exposed a bunch of overpaid private consultants who were either too arrogant or too stupid to think nobody would overhear them talking at length about a meeting with the Epsom-St Helier Trust CEO, one Daniel Elkeles. This would be the same Daniel Elkeles who told KOSHH campaigners a few weeks back that, surprise, surprise, St Helier Hospital was safe for five years. He just omitted to tell us that after five years, the hospital may be gone entirely.

What a bloody mess. But just as well the mess has bubbled to the surface before the election. It might force people in SW London to think hard about who they vote for on May 7.

And in the meantime, here are some questions that need to be answered as a matter of urgency.

1.  Can details on the three proposals, including full costings, be made available as soon as possible? And would a new hospital on the Sutton site be a PFI hospital?

2. Will the costings for the Sutton Hospital site hospital include the massive roadworks and transport upgrades that would be required to cope with the massive traffic increase for a residential area with narrow streets?

3. Why is the term "super-hospital" being bandied around for the 800-bed Sutton proposal when that would actually mean a decrease in beds for the area? What services would actually be provided at this place?

4. Will there be an independent analysis of travel times for ambulances that would have to go to Sutton instead of Epsom or St Helier's A&E, including those that are diverted from St Georges Hospital in Tooting? 

5. Will there be an independent analysis of journey times for cars as this will affect women in labour?

6. Did either Paul Burstow, the LibDem MP for Sutton & Cheam, or Tom Brake, the LibDem MP for Carshalton & Wallington, know about any of these plans before the story broke last week?

7. When did Daniel Elkeles, the Epsom-St Helier Trust CEO, first become aware of these plans?

8.  Why should anyone believe any promise of Jeremy Hunt's or any Conservative after the broken promise about no top-down reorganisation of the NHS?

9. Could the Sutton Hospital site land be disposed of expediently to ensure the "super-not-so-super hospital" option doesn't happen?

10. Given the other two options involve rebuilding St Helier Hospital and refurbishing Epsom Hospital, can we see how the combined costs of these compare to the Sutton Hospital option? Both these hospitals deserve the investment to make them the best they can possibly be.

We're waiting...

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Capital punishment and the abandonment of hope

When it comes to opposition to capital punishment, I am an absolutist. There are no ifs, no buts, no exceptions, no whataboutery. I believe it is wrong and has no place in a civilised world. I doubt it will happen in my lifetime but I would love to see a world free of capital punishment. It is barbaric, it has been used in cases where there is doubt, it has been used on the mentally incapacitated, on people who were underage at the time of the crime, and it is not even a particularly effective deterrent. Any one of these reasons is enough to reject the notion of capital punishment.

Even if a member of my family was murdered, I would not call for Deuteronomy's eye-for-an-eye punishment because it would not bring them back, it would not make anything better.

On Monday this week, an Indonesian court rejected a challenge by two convicted Australian drug smugglers who are facing the firing squad. The Indonesian president has also denied clemency. Things are looking bleak for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has appealed for their lives. Perhaps if Abbott hadn't been such an appalling diplomat, his pleas may have been taken more seriously. Perhaps if the Australian Federal Police hadn't tipped off their counterparts in Indonesia and instead intercepted Scott Rush, also accused with Chan and Sukumaran, we'd never have heard of the Bali Nine. Their only sliver of hope appears to be a plan by their lawyers to take the case to a constitutional court.

Chan and Sukumaran will probably live until at least April 24 because the government has decided to delay the executions until after the Asia-Africa Conferences, which started yesterday. The Attorney-General, HM Presetyo, said: "There is no fear involved in this decision, but you wouldn't execute people during a high-profile government event with lots of visitors."

Yes, heaven forbid a country shoots people while there are guests in the house...

I completely agree that smuggling heroin is a ridiculous, destructive, dreadful thing to do. I also agree that heroin is an insidious, destructive drug. However, I also think that extreme prohibition drug laws are ineffective. The people who end up on death row in countries like Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia are rarely the kingpins. Bali, even after the tragic terror attack of 2002, is renowned as a place to go and party hard, it is still a place where people go to take drugs. And it is still a busy transit point for the international drug market.

A CNN report found that according to local drug dealers, no more than 10% of traffickers get busted in Indonesia. Even if you know the penalty for being caught with drugs in Indonesia is death, there is still probably still a 90% chance you will be a successful mule. So that, in a nutshell, explains why people take the risk even when they are aware of the strict laws.

Or they are in a desperate, no-win situation such as the awful case of Nguyen Tuong Van, an Australian who was hanged in Singapore in 2005 at the age of 25. I was working at FHM in Sydney at the time and I will never forget the sad silence that swept across the usually noisy office when everyone's computer screen clocks clicked over to 9am and we realised his 6am Singapore time hanging had taken place.

Until the end, Nguyen maintained that he smuggled the drugs to pay off a debt owed by his twin brother, a heroin addict. But the people at the top of the pile in the drugs underworld wouldn't give a shit about this. Lives are expendable all the way down the chain, right down to the addict in the gutter.

And it is this cheap attitude to people that pervades the mentality that supports capital punishment. It is the abandonment of hope, the rejection of any chance of rehabilitation, that makes it such a bleak act.

Chan and Sukumaran are examples of how people can be rehabilitated and how getting caught should have been the best thing for them. Before being caught, they were not using their lives wisely at all and did terrible things. Sure, they could have continued smuggling drugs, and they probably would have done so, but instead, they have used their time in prison wisely, and were rehabilitated within the Indonesian prison system, and are now better people. This is how to deal with drug smugglers. Shooting them dead on a beach won't fix a damn thing.

Photography by George Hodan