Health minister to probe claim 999 operator ‘wasted time’ as Lady Winston was dying
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Health minister to probe claim 999 operator ‘wasted time’ as Lady Winston was dying

Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer and Labour peer, described how the call handler “bombarded” him with “a litany of questions” — including asking him to count heartbeats.

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Lady Lira Winston with Lord Winston at the PAJES-Jewish News Jewish Schools Awards (Marc Morris Photography)
Lady Lira Winston with Lord Winston at the PAJES-Jewish News Jewish Schools Awards (Marc Morris Photography)

The Health Minister in the Lords has promised to find out from the Department of Health why a 999 operator allegedly wasted time before calling an ambulance, when Lady Winston was dying in her husband’s arms last December.

In a poignant contribution to a debate in the Lords on deaths caused by ambulance delays, Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer and Labour peer, described how the 999 call handler had “bombarded” him with “a litany of questions” — including asking him to count the heartbeats of his wife.

Lady Winston, who was 72 and a renowned Jewish educator, collapsed suddenly in the family home. Lord Winston called the 999 service — but, as he told fellow peers: “As my wife lay dying in my arms, I phoned the 999 service.

“The man answering the call asked me a litany of questions and asked me to count her number of heartbeats per minute. That waste of time is critical; with a cardiac arrest you have only a few seconds.

“I had to interrupt the cardiac massage that I was giving my wife until the emergency services arrived, but of course they had not been called yet”.

Lord Winston, 81 and emeritus professor of fertility studies at Imperial College, London, asked Lord Kamall to confirm that there was “proper training for people who answer these calls at these critical times, when they are dealing with someone who may recognise that their close relative is dying and that the latter can hear what they are saying on the telephone”.

He added: “It is highly dangerous and that makes it very difficult. The last thing we hear as we die is usually the voice of someone who is with us”. Lira Winston’s sudden death sent shock waves around the Jewish community.

Lord Kamall, thanked Lord Winston for sharing his “very personal story”, and admitted: “Clearly there are too many incidents of this kind.” He added: “The person was probably trained to ask particular questions to ascertain how serious or how urgent it was —and sadly, clearly it was inappropriate. I will take that particular case back to the department to see if I can get some answers”.

It is not known whether Lord Winston identified himself as a medical  professional to the 999 operator.

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