Raigmore ‘code black’ announcement gave media an open door for an excess of alarmist covid coverage

by Colin Campbell

NHS Highland issued a statement on the rising number of coronavirus cases in this region which included an announcement that as a result Raigmore Hospital had moved into “code black” status.

The “code black” declaration was not the most prominent part of the statement but the reaction to it across the media made no allowances for that.

The headline in The Herald: “Covid Scotland: Raigmore Hospital in ‘code black’ crisis.”

In The Scotsman: “Scots hospital at ‘code black’ as NHS struggles with rising Covid cases.”

In the Press and Journal: “Raigmore Hospital at ‘code black’ as NHS struggles to cope with rise in NHS Highland cases.”

When I saw these headlines appear on Tuesday afternoon I found them alarming. What other people would have made of them I don’t know.

But to me they immediately suggested that Raigmore was “struggling” to cope with a a “crisis” caused by the number of people who had been newly admitted there suffering from the coronavirus, conjuring a worst case scenario image right in our midst.

The reports underneath did nothing to dispel that impression.

The Press and Journal stated: “Raigmore Hospital’s beds are full and all non-urgent surgeries have been cancelled as staff struggle to cope with the surge in Covid cases.”

The online reports in other papers were similar in tone and content. Beds full, coronavirus crisis, surge in admissions, hospital in crisis – very grim stuff.

The Press and Journal report continued: “Over the past week demand on health and social care services has reached unprecedented levels – with the number of people in hospital due to Covid at the highest since March.”

That sounded bad, very bad, and the very next thing I wanted to know is how many people ARE in hospital due to covid.

But the P&J report did not say.

That seemed to me a glaring, almost inexplicable omission in detail.

We know infections – and that’s what they should be called rather than “cases” – are rising as restrictions are eased.

But how many of these are resulting in people feeling a bit off colour and having to take to their beds at home for a couple of days? And how many are resulting in people becoming so seriously unwell that they have to be admitted to hospital?

That’s what people first and foremost want to know. Is the vaccine failing to do what it was supposed to do after all? But in the text below this blizzard of alarming headlines that key, absolutely vital piece of information was missing. It was nowhere to be seen.

So are we now in a “crisis” situation where Raigmore and other Highland hospital are being overwhelmed by “a surge” in the admission of coronavirus patients? Are things really that bad?

No they are not.

The NHS Scotland daily update on coronavirus patients in hospital is easily accessible. And it took me all of five minutes to find the situation as it relates to NHS Highland.

On Saturday, after a period when there were no coronavirus patients in Raigmore or any Highland hospital, five people were admitted. That number stayed the same on Sunday and Monday, and on Tuesday it rose to six.

So out of a 250,000 population there are a total of six covid patients in Highland hospitals, including Raigmore. Make of what that you will. But it doesn’t sound like much of a “surge” or a “crisis” to me.

But you certainly wouldn’t have gleaned that from the “code black” Raigmore media coverage.

In fact, the virus is indeed causing big problems at Raigmore which will affect patients, but as the NHS Highland statement explained, these are also related to factors including staff having to self-isolate because of virus contact, and because of “the beginning of the school summer holidays and annual leave”, and what is described as “an unprecedented level of demand across health and social care services”.

But it’s not because the hospital is collapsing under the pressure of stricken coronavirus patients being constantly wheeled in to fill up beds across the wards. At least that’s a relief to know.

In fact NHS Highland gave the media an open door to go into scary overdrive with its melodramatic “code black” announcement. They should have known that that’s what would have been seized on right away. What was the point of making this announcement with its funereal connotations? Code black? It doesn’t get any blacker than black. Does it benefit people waiting for hospital appointments or treatment to know that Raigmore is in this worst case dark zone? Somehow I very much doubt it.

No-one would doubt these are very tough times for Raigmore and its staff, and even tougher for patients waiting for treatment. That information could have been made available to the public without attracting huge “code black” media attention which painted the worst possible picture in these already very difficult times.

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