In response to UKMA’s patron, Lord Howe, the junior Health Minister, Baroness Thornton said she “absolutely agreed” that it is “time for all of us, in all parties,…. to work together to clear up this long-standing and very British mess.” She added “This is a matter that will solve itself over time but it is our job in government to move as fast as we can towards people recognising and feeling comfortable using metric calculations.”
The background to this exchange was covered in our recent article “NHS risking patients’ lives with imperial scales”, which gives links to the relevant documents. Briefly, an official report found that, despite previous warnings, 30% of NHS hospitals were still using scales that are switchable between metric and imperial, and 10% were actually being used in imperial mode. This risks wrong doses of drugs (which are calculated in metric) being administered to vulnerable patients – with possibly disastrous consequences.
The Minister’s statement is welcome as a public confirmation that it really IS Government policy “to move toward full metrication in time” (quoted from a letter from the Science Minister, Lord Drayson). However, I do have reservations about her comment that “this is a matter that will solve itself in time”. By this of course she was presumably echoing the widespread assumption that, since children are educated in metric units, as older people die out, metric units will gradually become the default for the general population, and imperial units will fall out of use. If only this were true …
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise. The alternative view is that, after ca 35 years of metric education in schools, acceptance and use of metric units varies with occupation, educational standard and social class – and also with the mistaken perception that metric units are “foreign”. On this view, we have reached a stable but highly unsatisfactory situation of “two systems” with no prospect of resolution – without specific Government action.
The other reservation that one must have about the Minister’s statement – however welcome it may be – is that although she speaks for the Department of Health, the policy is not carried through to other aspects of Government – notably Transport. We shall return to this point in a forthcoming article.
Going back to the exchange in the House of Lords, it is good that the Health Department is now committed to issuing an “alert” reminding all NHS hospitals of the importance of metric-only scales. This will reduce the risk of a catastrophic accident resulting from confusion over measurement units. So let us congratulate Baroness Thornton and hope that, with her support, stones, pounds and ounces can finally be eradicated from the NHS.