Making a meal of it
It is the sort of story you’ve become used to reading in the annals of NHS Blithering, a tale worthy of the fictional CCG’s sultan of spin Martin Plackard. We’re talking about the biggest PR coup so far this year, which was pulled off by Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals.
Sandwichgate has been covered by the BBC, Telegraph and HSJ, to name a few. In the unlikely event you missed the story it concerns the decision by a catering firm to stop supplying sandwiches after a Shropshire trust asked all of its suppliers to accept new deferred payment terms.
In a memo leaked to the press, the trust explained that with a deficit of £5.9m and growing it had been forced to take drastic action. As the catering firm had declined the new terms, “we will be unable to provide sandwiches and salads for patients or in our commercial outlets,” staff were told.
This was a stroke of genius. By focusing on the impact of NHS cuts on the hospitals’ ability to provide chicken wraps, the trust created just the right blend of bathos, drama and comedy. With stories of impending NHS disaster reaching saturation point, appealing to the public’s affection for the sandwich was the perfect way to break through the din about multi-million pound deficits, patients languishing on trolleys, overcrowded A&E departments and exhausted staff.
The hospitals will continue to function without sandwiches. The egg mayonnaise deficit poses no imminent threat to life. As the memo went on to make clear, “during this time, a wide range of alternatives will be available”, including “jacket potatoes with a choice of fillings… toast as well as cheese and biscuits, yoghurts and fruit”.
But this was barely reported. No self-respecting news editor was going to spoil a good story by acknowledging that the catering department had a contingency plan. The inference was clear: if there were no sandwiches today, what would be next to go? X-ray machines, anaesthetic, nurses?
The media laid it on thick. “Sandwiches withdrawn from trust with cashflow problems”, blared the HSJ headline, conjuring an image of bailiffs going in to recover as many cheese rolls as they could before the inevitable crash.
The BBC reported to that the trust was “struggling to pay its sandwich bill” using quotation marks to make it clear that when the trust said it was a "temporary issue" and that "at no time have any patients not had access to meals", what it really meant was that hospitals had run out of food completely and that it was only a matter of time before the first shocking acts of cannibalism came to light.
Struggling to find anyone sensible to interview, the BBC turned to social media. One man refused to blame the sandwich firm: “They have to pay their suppliers, staff and overheads for running business,” he tweeted matter-of-factly.
Another ordinary member of the public declared: “This makes me so sad,” but was unclear about whether her tears were for the decline of the NHS, the prospect of endless jacket potatoes or both.
The Telegraph saw the sandwich cuts as just the latest example of an NHS trust making a “desperate bid” to manage its finances. The paper’s health editor took a mere paragraph or two to link local ham salad issues to, as it were, the bigger pickle. “Last year the health service declared the worst deficit in its history - at £2.45bn - and the current winter crisis is fuelling extra spending on agency staff,” she wrote, leaving readers in no doubt that the underlying cause of the NHS’s problems is a shortage of baguettes.
Coming in the same week that the health police launched an assault on chips, toast and roast potatoes (all carcinogenic, apparently), the threat to the hospital sandwich is almost too much to bear.
But before we wallow in self-pity, let’s pause to congratulate the resourceful chief executive of Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals Simon Wright and his brilliant comms team. They have a knack for breaking the NHS stories people really care about.
Catering editor: Julian Patterson