Is the NHS equipped to deal with floods, gales and heatwaves of extreme weather?  A deadly serious question is posed in a quiet corner of the Houses of Parliament.  While the media fulminates in a flash storm conjured by David Cameron during Prime Ministers Questions, the Environmental Audit Select Committee contemplates a more fearful threat than Ed Milliband ‘crawling to power on Alex Salmond’s coat tails’.

Big Ben and the clock showing 5pm

Climate Change waits for no man

You won’t have read that story. Within minutes of the pantomime spat between Milliband and Cameron, the story is on the BBC website and across cyberspace. The NHS Sustainability inquiry does not make headline news, or even a small paragraph, in the press.  I only know about it because I was sitting in Committee Room 6 while the Environmental Audit Committee was reviewing the NHS strategy for sustainable development.

That includes plans for adapting to climate change. But how our health service can deal with the real world consequences of the biggest threat to life on the planet gets no attention from the media.

I was there with a friend as guests of Mark Lazarowicz, Labour MP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith, who is also a member of this very important select committee. After almost nine years of helping to organise a small, informal ‘shadowing scheme’  (Leith Open Space Opening Doors to Democracy has run with generous support from our locally elected representatives) I was enjoying my own glimpse of a day at Westminster.  It proved to be well worth the train journey south but for reasons I had not anticipated. 

Mark had booked us tickets for PMQs and on a quick private tour of the empty House of Commons chamber – before the sniffer dogs came in for the daily security check – he agreed the rowdy ritual is a strange piece of theatre. But, he added, there is something levelling about the most powerful man in the land facing questions from all parties across the house. 

Empty green benches surrounded by handsome wood pannelling of the House of Commons

Empty chamber: screengrab from parliament virtual tours

An hour later we would see Cameron doing his level best not to answer them, batting away Milliband’s television debate challenge with a wave of a Scottish Labour election leaflet and the spectre (later discredited) of  “an alliance between the people who want to bankrupt Britain and the people who want to break up Britain”.

The real work of holding government to account is often done in committee and, as it happened, Mark’s diary included the weekly sitting of the Environmental Audit Committee. After lunch, in a small wood-pannelled room upstairs, a group of MPs were asking for evidence of progress on the NHS Sustainable Development Strategy (Sustainable Resilient Healthy People & Places) launched a year ago. The chair is Joan Whalley who seems a gentler sort than Margaret Hodge whose chairing of the public accounts committee regularly makes headline news. Nevertheless the Labour MP for Stoke on Trent North is patiently, politely persistent in her questioning of the three witnesses representing Department of Health, NHS England and Sustainability Development Unit.

Answers were often frustratingly abstract – to those of us who do not speak civil service jargon – but they gave a mind boggling glimpse of the superhuman task involved in inspiring ‘bottom up’ change across the health service. How do you draw up a coherent plan for a labyrinthine infrastructure, covering car parks to bottled water, air conditioning to pharmaceuticals, syringes to ambulances?  Committee members suggested some ‘top down’ initiatives.    Green’s Caroline Lucas pushed for NHS leading the way on divestment from fossil fuels.  Mark Lazarowicz asked if procurement contracts could be adapted to reduce the carbon footprint of NHS suppliers. 

And what about health care in a warming world? Does the NHS strategy take account of ‘extreme weather, floods, hotter summers, air pollution and so on?’ asked Dr Alan Whitehead.

Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. But, as you can see from the Westminster report of the meeting,  there were few clear answers to what Sonia Roschnik of the Sustainable Development Unit  called, the ‘multi-faceted thing’ they were working on. She adds: “For me, one of the scariest scenarios would be to have a hot ward with lots of portable air conditioning units,when we could have approached it in a more strategic way by thinking about how we were going to deal with that ahead of time.”

I left the room slightly dazed by the enormity of the task, and the fact that such a fundamental discussion is going on at all, even if it is under the radar of public awareness.  “I very much hope,” the chair had concluded “that this is not just,a case of coming before a Select Committee; that the work that is ongoing will be going on with intense pressure behind the scenes.”

Marble hallway with statues and tiled flooring: very grand!

Lower Waiting Hall leading to committee rooms upstairs

The pressure is on. Perhaps publication of the NHS Sustainability report in May will grab headlines in the wider world.  Yet, as we leave through Westminster Hall, The Beginnings of that Freedome exhibition inspired by the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta reminds us that the process of democracy is painfully slow.  The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was the result of more than 20 years of campaigning and it took until 1833 to abolish slavery itself. We don’t have that long to act on Climate Change.

In front of me now I have the report which Mark grabbed hot off the press in time for us to take home, Climate Change Adaptation (the final Environmental Audit Committee report for this parliamentary session) opens with statistics recording 2014 as the warmest and wettest year on record.  Chillingly, the Fire Brigade Union describes response to the 2013-14 winter as “the largest deployment by the fire and rescue services since [the] Second World War”. Yet with cuts to the fire service the FBU says the UK has become less flood resilient in recent years. In the parliamentary press release announcing the report, Joan Walley says:

“With the effects of climate change likely to persist for centuries to come, the need to adapt is unavoidable. Flooding poses the biggest adaptation risk here in the UK, yet the Adaptation Programme gives you no sense of this. To bring about real climate resilience, the Government needs to provide a more top-down strategic direction to identify the priority risks.”

Is anyone listening?