SARAH OLIVER: Matt Hancock's rules meant my dad had to die alone

SARAH OLIVER: Matt Hancock’s rules meant my dad had to die alone. Now I find that we’ve all been taken for fools

I’m not sure how you are supposed to choose, when you are told your dad has a 50-50 chance of living but only one of his two children can go and see him, and then only for an hour. 

Who claims visiting rights? The older child? The younger? Toss a coin for it? Rock, paper, scissors? Best of three? A quick sibling wrestle in the hospital car park?

In the end, the consultant gave the most generous and humane interpretation of Covid regulations he could – my brother and I were permitted 30 minutes each while the other one waited down the corridor.

Later that night our father died alone. There was no one there to hold his hand or love him in his final minutes. Covid regulations trumped compassion, even though he had tested negative for the disease.

‘I’m not sure how you are supposed to choose, when you are told your dad has a 50-50 chance of living but only one of his two children can go and see him, and then only for an hour.’ (Above, Sarah Oliver and her father Angus, who had bone marrow cancer)

It was Easter Monday. Diagnosed with cancer a few months earlier, he’d been taken ill that morning and was rushed to hospital. By the evening his odds of making it through the night were one in two. Yet even then we were not allowed to stay by his bedside.

‘A visit is only allowed for the end of life,’ said the consultant. ‘And we’re not there yet.’

Except, we were and how I wish that ‘Hands, Face, Space’ had not trumped my right to kiss my dad’s lovely old cheek as he left us.

Just a day earlier he had gone to an Easter Sunday service resplendent in his favourite M&S corduroy suit, a blue shirt with a jaunty daffodil yellow check, and suede brogues. He was being reunited with his church chums after many months of worshipping together on Zoom.

He was 90 but still tough enough to cut his own hedges and enjoy some rough and tumble with his grandsons, aged 15 and 11. After church he hosted a back-garden barbecue. We were just six, the number Matt Hancock said would keep the country safe.

It was the first time since last summer the family had eaten together. I remember – and regret – leaving early because it was chilly and Dad wouldn’t go inside while he had guests. We couldn’t head into the house with him because, Covid rules, right?

They were there for a reason. One nation, one people, all in it together – or so we were constantly told.

‘The nursing staff were kind, communicative and patient, but the hospital’s rules were mandated by the Health Secretary. No visitors’

Dad used to laugh about the eight-page Department of Health letters imploring him to shield which turned up frequently by text on his iPhone, in his emails and by post. ‘Matt’s been writing to me again,’ he’d snort. But he read and kept them all. We found the hard copies in a ring-binder, filed in date order, after he died. He had accepted without complaint what was asked of him, to stay at home, save lives and protect the NHS.

Last Christmas, Dad was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, but if you hadn’t known, you’d never have guessed.

When I asked my brother what they’d done after we’d gone home on Easter Sunday, he replied: ‘Opened another bottle of rioja.’

But that had been the night before and, by the time we got him to hospital on the bank holiday morning, he was very sick, succumbing to a bug which was turning into sepsis.

The nursing staff were kind, communicative and patient, but the hospital’s rules were mandated by the Health Secretary. No visitors.

At 6pm, when the consultant gave his honest assessment of Dad’s chances, we asked if now we could go in and see him. It was still a No. I am not ashamed to say I begged. The doctor conferred. One of us, for one hour, was the most he could allow. I begged some more, pleading for both of us to have half an hour each. More conferring.

He conceded.

And that’s how I found myself clock-watching as my dad’s life ticked away, greedy for time with him but anxious not to encroach on my brother’s 30 minutes – every second of his as precious as mine.

The call came shortly after 2am on April 6. Dad was gone.

My brother and I drove back to the hospital. We could definitely come in to visit now he was dead. How weird was that?

By sun-up I was at home, sitting on a woodpile with my dogs, drinking whiskey and looking at the craterscape of the previous 24 hours.

My father was a Geordie. He hewed coal in pits across the Northumberland and Durham coalfields and then mined fluorspar for British Steel in the high northern Pennines. 

He loved Tyneside but he loved his children more and eventually, having lost both of us to jobs in London, he and Mum stuck a pin in the map, found Suffolk, and moved south to be within day-tripping distance.

That was 1996. Fast-forward ten years and my brother and I had left the capital and joined them in the country. Since then, we’d nipped in and out of each other’s daily lives like fish flashing through a shoal. Sometimes I’d just bump into my folks in Waitrose or pass their car on the road.

But at the very end, when it mattered most, we were kept apart.

It goes without saying that Dad’s funeral, at the church where he spent his last happy day on Earth, was socially distanced.

The choir sang, we couldn’t. Banned by Matt Hancock. Even the eulogy had to be kept short. You can’t have too much speaking without your mask on in church. Also Matt Hancock. We had a bagpiper. 

He played the Keel Row, a Tyne folk song, binding the service to our family in the North, none of whom could make the 270-mile journey. Dad was permitted only 30 mourners anyway, which was tricky for someone who’d been collecting friends since 1930.

‘While I was missing my dad dying, Matt Hancock was conducting an affair, inside the Department of Health, with an aide whose job was the oversight and scrutiny of his work. How I wish the old man had been alive to enjoy the bum-grabbing, Benny Hill-style CCTV footage of their clinch’

It snowed, so it’s just as well we didn’t even try to have a wake, which Matt Hancock said would have to be held outside.

That last bottle of rioja with my brother and my log-pile whiskey would have to suffice.

But now I find I’ve been had. We’ve all been had.

The bereaved such as me, the brides, the taxi drivers and pilots and chefs and shopkeepers and impresarios and entrepreneurs, all of us who’ve stuck by the rules, have been taken for fools.

While I was missing my dad dying, Matt Hancock was conducting an affair, inside the Department of Health, with an aide whose job was the oversight and scrutiny of his work.

How I wish the old man had been alive to enjoy the bum-grabbing, Benny Hill-style CCTV footage of their clinch.

I know what he would have said. ‘What a total wazzock*.’

Now that Hancock has resigned, the Government may consider the matter truly to be closed.

But my personal ledger remains wide open and I’ve only just begun filling in the columns headed sadness and fury.

Contempt, any psychologist will tell you, marks the end of a relationship. And that, Mr Hancock, is now all we’re left with.

* Non-Geordie translation of a wazzock: Buffoon or imbecile. Etymology: There’s a suggestion the word takes its name from medieval kings who would defecate on a shovel and then have it thrown out of the window. A wazzock was – allegedly – the tool used to hurl it. S*** raining down on the heads of the little people from on high? How very appropriate here.

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