The BMA is slacking – germ warfare belongs below the belt

The BMA’s ethics and science chief has got all hot under the collar about the dangers of tie-wearing doctors, but she hasn’t got to the bottom of the problem

If by chance there pants and frets among London’s teeming population of comely PR girls, one who would care to rest from organising press conferences at Quaglino’s to announce the birth of a new male fragrance and try instead something more testing, the Tie Manufacturers’ Association is in need of a spot of crisis management.

The male necktie, like the giant panda, is on the verge of extinction. Spurned by trend-setters and mocked by the avant-garde, at whose head stand such exemplars of fashion as Lord Birt and Andrew Neil, it may go the way of the ruff unless urgent action is taken. Two recent developments show there is no time to be lost. First, the Conservative Party, under its new and excitingly jejune leader, has thrown away its ties in the name of modernity. The gesture is more than symbolic/ all that a died-in-the-wool Tory need do to transmogrify from one who would birch miscreants prior to hanging them into the juggling life and soul of the unmarried mothers’ union, is to wear his shirt open at the collar. A tie is the visible barrier between a politician and the people; remove it and the gateway to power is thrown open.

The second blow to the tie is more serious since it is comes with a health warning, the modern equivalent of ancient sibylline foreboding. The British Medical Association says that doctors’ neckties may harbour fatal superbugs, which could spread to patients. The association’s head of ethics and science, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, says: “Ties, in our view, are an unnecessary piece of clothing. We recognise that people touch their ties and wear them for a long time. People have to recognise the potential danger.”

We should listen carefully to Dr Nathanson for she is herself a sufferer, having fallen prey some time ago to the distressing condition known as Compulsive Communication Disorder (CCD). In the past year or so she has warned against the dangers of passive smoking, called for a ban on boxing, urged a prohibition on the advertising of alcohol, announced that the threat of biological weapons is real, declared that doctors have a serious drink and drugs problem, blamed women’s magazines for an increase in eating disorders, warned that gene therapy could be twisted into a terrifying genetic weapon, spoken out against genetically modified foods and sounded off against the dangers of sunbathing. Surprisingly, on the subject of trousers she has maintained an unnatural silence.

This is a strange omission given that men’s trousers are undoubtedly a health hazard, both to the wearer and to others who might stray into their proximity. The fly zip alone – harsh, serrated and sited in the immediate neighbourhood of the delicate male reproductive organ – can, in careless hands, cause the eyes to water. Far worse is the disease-harbouring capacity of trousering. In my experience more food is dropped on to the lap than falls down shirt fronts, making the trouser a greater danger than the tie. Incidentally, if, as the BMA implies, doctors are messy eaters, more research is required. Do the hands of male members of the profession shake as they raise the soup spoon to their mouths? Does a forkful of low-fat comestible tremble as it nears their lips? It is in the interest of patients that we should know the answer. To give but one example, under the hand of a quivering doctor an intended vasectomy can become an unintended circumcision or, in extreme cases, castration.

That, however, is by way of a digression. A more obvious danger is of fatal disease being transmitted to patients from doctors’ infected trousers. (I need not go into detail here; suffice it to say that more than food drops onto trousers.) This is particularly liable to occur into today’s hospitals in which a more relaxed approach to patient care is encouraged. Whereas it used to be that consultants on their daily rounds of the wards would maintain a stiff and distant formality, they are today inclined to sit on the bed, hold the patient’s hand and empathise with a disquieting intensity. Fine, if you like that sort of thing, but apt to leave behind in buttock indentations traces of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus and spaghetti bolognaise.

The answer is that doctors should wear togas. They were the garments favoured by the Romans when only barbarians wore trousers. That members of a learned profession should emulate the patrician class of a great civilisation of antiquity seems entirely appropriate. As for Dr Nathanson, the best cure for CCD is to take your mind off it. She could begin by practising medicine rather than preaching, which is the proper function of a quite different calling.


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