Hazel McHaffie

Hell on earth

Evin prison in Tehran has a worse reputation than Alcatraz, and it was this nightmarish place I was reading about when I sent last week’s post. Coincidentally, it came up in the news only a couple of days ago, in an interview with a dual national, Kurdish/British, academic, an anthropologist, who recently escaped while out on bail from Evin, trekking on foot through the mountains, and has now taken refuge in Britain. He had already undergone three months of psychological torture, and couldn’t face another 10 years.

Built during the reign of the Shah of Iran, this notorious compound, Evin prison, was originally intended to hold opponents to his regime. Since his fall from power in 1979, it’s been used for political prisoners, solitary confinement, and torture of those deemed to be enemies of the Islamic state. It has an horrific record in serious human rights abuses. Originally designed to house 320 inmates — 20 in solitary cells and 300 in two large communal blocks — by 1977 it had expanded to hold more than 1,500 prisoners, including 100 solitary cells for political prisoners. It has its own execution yard and courtroom on site, which probably says a lot.

And yet, two Iranian women, Marziyeh Amarizadeh and Maryam Rostampour, found it easier to experience God’s presence and peace there, and for their Christian faith to thrive, than in the outside world. Why?

Because inside this dark hell they turned on the light for so many others, and saw the amazing opportunities for witness that incarceration offered. In the deepest recesses of the most feared ward in the most notorious prison in one of the most oppressed nations in the world they could pray with and for their fellow prisoners and their captors openly and courageously.
… how easy it was to witness behind bars compared to the work we had done on the outside. [We] didn’t have to look for prospects or sneak New Testaments into their mailboxes. We could talk to them openly rather than hiding behind closed doors or in basements. Our fellow prisoners were hungry for the truth. Desperate for it.

And they used every opportunity they could. As Anne Graham Lotz says in her foreword:
Their love for the least, their kindness to the meanest, their gentleness to the roughest, their willingness to serve in the dirtiest place imaginable is truly a stunningly clear reflection of the Jesus they love, as well as evidence of His presence inside those walls,
and they (with John Perry) have recounted what life was like in that hell hole in Captive in Iran.

Marziyeh Amarizadeh and Maryam Rostampour were both born into Muslim families in Iran. They became Christians in 1998, and met while studying Christian theology in Turkey in 2005. They extended their ministry to India, S Korea and Turkey. When they returned to Iran, they began spreading the gospel message to anyone who would listen, handing out 20,000 New Testaments, and starting two house churches in their apartment in Tehran – one for young people, one for prostitutes. But after three years, in March 2009, they were arrested and imprisoned for 259 days in Evin Prison on charges of apostasy, anti-government activity and blasphemy. There was ample evidence of their activities.

Technically it’s not illegal to be a Christian in Iran, but converting from Islam to another faith, as well as evangelising on behalf of that faith, are considered crimes of apostasy punishable by death. Accordingly the threat of execution hung over these two young women throughout their detention in Evin. But in spite of it, and in defiance of the squalor, the stench, the overcrowding, the terrible food, the incompetent medical care, the punitive routines, they continued to share their deep faith and hope, and found responsive hearts and minds amongst the drug addicts, the murderers, the political rebels, the staunch Muslims, the abused, even amongst some of the guards.
Never in our lives would we form friendships as deep and rich as the ones God had blessed us with behind the high and foreboding walls of Evin Prison.
To their surprise, they found a common bond: they were united by their fierce opposition to the injustice and brutality of the prevailing oppressive regime, that has destroyed the body and soul of the Iranian people.

And outside, a growing movement was publicising their plight and seeking justice. Thousands around the world prayed for their freedom. International pressure was brought to bear on their behalf. Amnesty International, the United Nations and the Vatican all got involved. But even when it was clear the charges against them could not be upheld, somehow a way needed to be found that allowed the authorities to release them without losing face. After many false starts, it was eventually found.

After their release they faced a new and real danger. Not only would they be constantly observed for any infringement of the law, no matter how slight, but anyone they met or fraternised with was in jeopardy. They were torn.
Despite what the government did to us, we continue to love our country very much and pray for the freedom of our fellow Iranians …
They so much wanted to help everyone to find freedom in faith, but the prospect of being instrumental in the death or imprisonment of their fellow Iranians was too much for them. In the end they elected to emigrate to the USA.

Captive in Iran is at one a damning indictment of a harsh and punitive regime, and a triumph of good over evil. Would I have had the courage to see incarceration in this prison hell as a God-given opportunity? I very much doubt it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Light in the darkness

‘Be the light in the darkness’

That’s the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 (yesterday: 27 January), encouraging everyone to reflect on the depths to which humanity can sink, remembering especially the six million Jews, and thousands of other minority peoples, who were killed under Nazi persecutions, as well as those who’ve lost their lives in subsequent genocides. But importantly, to also consider ways in which we can individually and as a community shine a light in the darkness and resist hatred, persecution, injustice, prejudice and misinformation.

It’s 76 years since the gates of Auschwitz swung open on 27 January 1945, and the remaining prisoners were liberated, the unimaginable slaughter revealed. The world today is much changed in so many ways, but still riven with huge inequalities and cruelty. Even in our own relatively civilised society, what a grim milestone we passed this very week: 100,000 deaths from Covid-19; disproportionately high amongst the poor and disadvantaged. What chance for the refugees huddled in camps, those in war-torn countries, or caught up in brutal and repressive dictatorships? I’m deep in a book about the oppressive regime in Iran which makes me ask some very difficult questions of myself.

There is still much to ponder and to protest. A candle in the window last night is a mere token.

Let’s not forget the lessons of the past; let’s not pass by on the other side today.

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Online presence

Phew, how the weeks fly by! I’ve just noted my tally … well over 600 posts.

So, a moment to pause and ask myself, why do I even have a blog? and why do I continue to write it every week? Initially, of course, it was set up to give me a profile (sounds so grand, doesn’t it?) which people could consult to see who I am, how I operate, why I write my style of novels, what I stand for. Some form of online presence is a prerequisite for authors nowadays, and the advice is: choose the ones with which you feel most comfortable. I’m at ease with this format.

But in my case, it’s more than that.

 

 

 

 

 

In my medical ethics novels, I make a point of leaving lots of breathing space for readers to form their own conclusions about the issues that provide the backdrop to each story. They aren’t polemics; they aren’t a vehicle for my opinions; they’re novels … although it’s not uncommon for readers to ask me what my personal views are. If I give nothing away about myself I can come across as a blank canvas. A blog gives me a vehicle to occasionally declare my hand in a controlled kind of way. It may be what I think of a piece of legislation, or a world event, or a book, or what someone has said, or an experience I’ve had. Anything really which has made me think, about which I have something to say. Reading back over some of it, I hardly recognise myself!! Did I actually formulate that argument, or articulate that thought?

Life can be so full, that it’s all too easy to skim read, only half-attend when listening to a programme/lecture/seminar or going to an event/function. But if I know I’m going to print on the topic, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. ‘I write to find out what I think!‘, as Stephen King said. Knowing my thoughts will be shared with others somehow allows me the mental bandwidth to think things through properly and reach a logical conclusion that I’d be prepared to defend. And it’s good for me personally to keep the little grey cells nudging one another.

If you too find what I have to say of interest, that’s a bonus! Thanks for visiting.

 

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The Vanishing Year

Well, I can’t imagine many people will have been sorry to see 2020 vanish into the mists of history; some indeed are willing 2021 away now, given the dire statistics and predictions. A thousand deaths each day in the UK; a total now exceeding 80,000 – the worst statistics in Europe; 2 million lives lost worldwide. Our NHS struggling to cope; long term problems accruing with the overall health of the nation.

Watching this horror emerging, we’ve all had to find ways of keeping hope alive and maintaining mental well-being. Icy conditions make even outdoor exercise treacherous, another lockdown forces us to stay at home … Eeh dear! Not surprisingly, for me – as well as countless others – books have played a major part in this struggle. It’s well recognised they offer escape and a way of making sense of the world and our place in it. Indeed, several people who took advantage of our pandemic bookcase went so far as to say books had saved their sanity.

Not surprising then, that one novel should pop into my head as we watched 2020 disappear in our rear view mirrors: this thriller, The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti. Apposite title, but nothing to do with the pandemic, so forgive the tenuous link.

Sometimes I feel as if I am made up almost entirely of secrets.‘ That pretty much sums up the main protagonist, Zoe Whittaker.

Outwardly, Zoe has an enviable life – not yet thirty, a fabulous Manhattan home, a rich and charming husband, influence, looks, wealth, connections. But untethered, with too little to do. She feels like a marble in a huge jar, suffocating under the sense that she is accomplishing nothing. Useless, apart from her charity work supporting orphaned and disadvantaged children.

What’s more, in spite of her privileged life, she is haunted by her past, living in fear of being recognised. Because five years ago, Zoe wasn’t Zoe at all. And even her husband Henry doesn’t know her real name. Nor that she was penniless, unable to afford to bury her own mother, until that is, she became a drug dealer, addicted herself to pills and drink, peddling her wares in the presence of children. Until she confessed all to the police, testifying against two human traffickers to a grand jury. Before vanishing.

And now an attempt has been made on the life of the reinvented Zoe. Her home has been ransacked. Her credit card is missing. Someone from her past has come back for her. Threats are being made.

The old classic trademarks are there – control, manipulation, layers of issues, rags-to-riches, fear for life. And the plotting is so devious that, once you know the truth, you want to go back and read it again to see all the clues you missed first time around. An excellent diversion. And a good illustration of how books can give us respite from the stresses of real life, transport us into a different world and time and place – an invaluable bonus during this time of national crisis and mental fragility.

Speaking of a different world and being transported … this opportunity to tramp in a winter wonderland does wonders for my own mental health, too. And yep, it’s well within the current rules of staying local!

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Volunteering … or not

Heroism, self sacrifice, commitment … 2020 highlighted the best in people, didn’t it? Inspirational stories of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things for love of their fellow man. Making a difference. Altruism was very much alive and well.

So why, oh why, were so many generous offers greeted with lukewarm responses and endless obstacles from officialdom? I’ve lost count of the stories of frustration on the part of those who wanted to give their time and expertise in the cause. No response, excessive bureaucracy, endless form-filling, wasted talent. My own experience was no different, so I totally sympathise. And we’re seeing it again, even now, when the situation here in the UK is worse than it’s ever been, the real-life statistics like those of some horror story … thousands of highly-motivated experienced medical professionals, newly retired, wanting to help with the vaccination campaign, but being required to complete umpteen forms, undertake irrelevant courses, submit to multiple layers of scrutiny, put off by absurd caveats. Ordinary, completely unskilled relatives are given crash courses in wielding medical syringes when the need arises, you know!!  They aren’t sent off to do five on-line courses!

Is it fear of litigation, suspicion of intent, lack of knowledge, or sheer administrative incompetence? I know not. But it’s certainly no way to foster goodwill and community spirit, that’s for sure. Nor is it helping to deliver the promised way out of this ghastly pandemic. And I know for certain some volunteers have given up the unequal struggle and sunk back into retirement, disillusioned and unfulfilled. OK, rant over.

Of course, in the total scheme of things it’s a small gripe. You only need to see pictures of starving women holding newborn babies in war-torn Yemen, or exhausted health care workers in tears in our overstretched Intensive Care Units, or the battered and bleeding face of an abused woman running down the street clutching her terrified children, to see there are bigger battles to be fought. But in my enforced isolation, faced with yet another unnecessary form to fill in online, this one is currently raising my blood pressure and focusing my reaction to so much that’s been badly handled in this public health crisis.

And please don’t point me in the direction of the bunch of folk (note restraint!) who deny the very existence of COVID19. My answer to them is:
We have just the job for you at least! Ideal. Tailor made. Transporting patients, attending to their personal toileting, disposing of their waste, cleaning their surfaces, carrying out the dead. In a COVID ward.
You’ll save the NHS a fortune in PPE because you won’t need it; you don’t believe it’s necessary. You won’t need any counselling or stress management or time off isolating. You’d be perfect for purpose.

Thank you, yes. How soon can you start?

 

 

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To 2021

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.”
T.S. Eliot

Here’s to a much brighter 2021.

Path to Straiton Pond

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Christmas greetings

Christmas blessings to you all and sincere thanks for visiting my blog.

It would be all too easy to simply write ‘Happy Christmas, everyone!’ but I know that sadly this will not be a joyous time for many people, especially at the end of this uniquely difficult year. So …

If you are currently facing devastating loss or grief,
may you be given the strength and courage to go on.

If you are caught in a spiral of stress and anxiety,
may you find a way through which guides you to a safer, more peaceful place.

If life is currently good and you have all you need,
may these blessings continue, valued and treasured.

If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a super-abundance of health and wealth,
may you have the wisdom, compassion and generosity to share wisely.

If you are in a position of power,
may you seek the humility and insight
to use it to influence others and effect change for the greater good.

‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.’

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Mental health in a time of pandemic

Well, twelve months ago, as we headed towards Christmas, who’d have thought 2020 would be a year like no other? Were you truly savouring each family hug, each shared celebration, each freedom? I certainly wasn’t. We took it all so much for granted, didn’t we?

But plenty of evidence has been emerging that the mental health of the nation has deteriorated during the pandemic, and that’s on top of already soaring mental health issues. One only needs to think isolation, job insecurity/loss, uncertain future, economic hardship, fear of disease and death, bereavement, domestic abuse, cancelled medical appointments/operations, etc etc, to understand why. And official reports bear this out. We heard in September on World Suicide Prevention Day of the serious effect on men’s mental health of lockdown, and now this month, a coroner in Wales has highlighted the tragic suicides precipitated by the profound and detrimental effect of the pandemic.

Recognising the stresses, lots of organisations are offering informative and/or therapeutic sessions online to help people combat the associated effects, some generic, some focused – relaxation techniques, mindfulness, breathing exercises, coping strategies, that kind of thing. I’ve dipped in to some myself, and as well as helping the participants to understand the legitimacy of what’s happening to them, these opportunities enable wider social connections to be made. Just chatting, or simply listening, to those who admit to also feeling beleaguered by developments, can be a comfort in itself.

Then there are the amazing events being streamed online, making uplifting experiences and cultural events accessible to so many more than would normally travel to expensive shows or courses.  Ballet, opera, drama, concerts, masterclasses, demonstrations, tutorials … something for pretty much any interest. And again I’ve personally availed myself of these opportunities. It’s so heartening to see and hear artists and experts, actors and athletes, craftsmen and academics, turning their own troubled times to good effect by sharing their expertise with the masses – drawing, running, playing musical instruments, creating beauty, and so on. A bonus for both sides.

The recent doorstep musicals project is a case in point. West End actors have set up Doorstep Productions in a bid to bring theatre to ordinary people in streets across the UK, simultaneously entertaining and lifting their spirits, whilst helping out-of-work actors whose jobs have dried up as theatres are forced to close. Big names like Andrew Lloyd Weber and Cameron Mackintosh are backing this initiative. Heart warming. And the Dundee Rep have just begun to bring their production of A Christmas Carol to the streets of a select nominated few too.

It all says much for the fighting spirit of the nation, doesn’t it? and the resilience of individuals, and the kindness of strangers. I want to add my thanks to everyone anywhere doing their bit to boost morale and unite our nation. In these days of dire health statistics, economic crisis, and uncertainty over Brexit, news of individual or collective positive endeavour or heroism or compassion is a real tonic.

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Sobering realities from the Covid-19 frontline

I love the idea of a story about a detective hunting lost triangles! A man whose imagination conjures up that plot for his children has my ear!
A doctor who lets his small daughter paint his toenails lurid colours during a pandemic and leaves it on – It’s a little piece of home to take to work, a talisman to protect me and a token to remind me – gets my attention.
One who’s fearless enough to spell out unpalatable facts about our health service in the face of repeated political assurances of world-beating everything, gets my vote.
And when that medic is so incensed by the government’s spineless response to Special Advisor Dominic Cummings’ blatant disregard for instructions to the nation during lockdown, that he tweets a photo of himself in full PPE, stating that if Cummings doesn’t resign, he will, and then does so, has my heartfelt respect.

That man is Dr Dominic Pimenta, Specialist Registrar in cardiology. His story in Duty of Care begins in London in January 2020, when he becomes increasingly aware of a tsunami of disaster heading this way. It’s the stuff of his nightmares.

The book is certainly not comfortable reading. It exposes a stark picture of our country woefully lagging in health care provision:
The simple numbers are so bad they speak for themselves; at present, we have the worst A&E waiting times on record, the worst operating waiting times and the worst record on hitting targets. Even life expectancy is on the decline. We are short-staffed by a figure of around 100,000 staff, including 40,000 nurses. We also have one of the lowest number of critical care beds, general hospital beds and doctors per head of all the 37 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). If we were an army, we would be a band of bedraggled, starved and exhausted soldiers. And that was all the case before any sign of coronavirus.

Now, I must confess that I personally have a lot of sympathy for our leaders trying to steer a course between many competing demands, balancing livelihoods against lives, damned if they do, damned if they don’t. It’s all too easy to criticise from the sidelines, or with hindsight. I cringe watching opposition MPs constantly carping about the decisions of government, knowing full well they aren’t going to be held accountable themselves. But this man, Dominic Pimenta, is a medical practitioner, and he had his eyes wide open from the outset. He isn’t scoring political points. So when he catalogues a litany of failings – incompetence, mendacity, lack of transparency, disregard of WHO advice – which have led to thousands of people losing their lives, thousands losing loved ones, thousands developing serious health problems, thousands having vital treatments postponed, thousands suffering serious mental ill health, then we ought to sit up and take note. These are desperately serious consequences indeed.
We could see the pandemic unfold, in high definition, live, 24/7, before our very eyes. And yet, for too long, we did nothing at all.

But in spite of his acute awareness of the true picture, shining through is his pride in the NHS: they responded magnificently to an overwhelming situation. He outlines convincing detail of their titanic struggle, their frustrations, their failures, as well as their triumphs and heroics.
With the right mindset, we are capable of incredible things.
Amen to that.

His own personal energy and determination to make a difference are exhausting to contemplate:
– writing articles spelling out the coming danger
– tweeting analysis and warnings
– publishing in the national press
– appearing on live TV shows
– campaigning for change
– garnering signatories for public appeals
– establishing a charity, HEROES, (now rebranded as Healthcare Workers’ Foundation)  for the protection and support of healthcare workers
– attracting celebrity support
– designing prototypes for PPE (personal protection equipment)
– setting up a second organisation, SHIELD, to bring industry leaders and experts together in the creation of innovative solutions to meet the demand for PPE, including cutting edge ‘printing hubs’
all while working as a clinician way outside his own comfort zone – at the frontline in ICU – and trying to be a husband, father, brother, son, uncle, friend, in unprecedented times. His manic activity leaves one fearful for both his mental and physical health, but as he says himself, the problem was so vast, it would never feel as if any level of effort was enough.

In Duty of Care he leaves the story at the end of the first lockdown, knowing a second and possible third tsunami are coming. Since he published it, we have all entered that predicted second wave and are dealing with its consequences right now. This week the death toll in the UK passed 62,000. I feel fairly confident we’ve not heard the last from this extraordinary ma, but I leave you with his own parting shot:
So stay informed, stay safe and be kind.

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Ethical challenges – did anyone press the pause button?

Well, the world may have been on pause this year, but ethical issues have still raised their heads above the parapet periodically. However, I suspect most of them were lost in the cacophony of sound relating to the pandemic, so to illustrate, I’ll share a selection from the past three months up till yesterday.

December
Sweden’s gymnastic federation has now ruled that young athletes under the age of 18 will be able to train and compete as whichever gender they choose to identify as. They will not need to provide a doctor’s endorsement or any evidence of gender dysphoria.

Following a landmark High Court ruling, in the UK, new guidelines have been introduced by the NHS that make it necessary for children with gender dysphoria to obtain a court order before they are legally allowed to take puberty blockers. It is felt that under 16-year-olds are highly unlikely to fully understand the long-term risks and consequences. However the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust which runs the UK’s only gender identity development service has said it will appeal against this ruling.

`November
New euthanasia rules are being introduced in the Netherlands – a country already known for its liberal social attitudes. Doctors will now be permitted to spike patients’ drinks before lethal injections are administered, in cases where it’s impossible to obtain informed consent from a person with an advanced directive who has already expressed a wish for help to die when the time is right, but who might resist the final act. The change comes in the wake of a court case where a doctor in a nursing home secretly slipped sedation into coffee for a lady at an advanced stage of dementia. Opponents of euthanasia are understandably alarmed by this widening of the limits in the medical code.

The English Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, spelled out confirmation that travelling abroad for assisted dying constituted a legitimate reason to break lockdown restrictions.

It was an accidental error that led to the Oxford/Astro-Zeneca vaccine against Covid-19 reaching 90% efficacy. About 3000 of the more than 20,000 volunteer trial participants had been given just half the dose they should have received according to the research protocol. The ‘correct’ dose achieved just 62% efficacy. A serendipitous result. And a lucky break for whoever was responsible for the mistake!

October
The Dutch government approved plans to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children under the age of 12 who are suffering hopelessly and unbearably. Objectors see the thin end of the wedge visibly widening.

Legislation to allow medically assisted death was passed by the New Zealand parliament last year, but lawmakers delayed implementing it until the public had had their say in a referendum.  Under this law, the End of Life Choice Act, a mentally sound adult who has a terminal illness with a life expectancy of less than six months, and who is experiencing unbearable suffering, can request a fatal dose of medication. New Zealanders have voted overwhelmingly to legalise this, which means the measure will now pass.

An angry backlash developed when the Women’s Prize for Fiction opened up its eligibility criteria to include transgender women.

Six consecutive days of protest followed a near-total ban on abortions in Poland by the constitutional court. A country of 38 million people, Poland already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, and an estimated 80,000 – 120,000 Polish women travel abroad for terminations or seek illegal abortions each year.

The English government has been keen to make the process of applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate kinder, cheaper and less complicated. As part of a drive for greater equality, the Women and Equalities committee are in the process of examining whether the currently mandatory diagnosis of gender dysphoria should be dropped from the legal process of transitioning, whether transgender people should be required to live in their preferred gender for at least two years before formally transitioning, and how their rights can be better supported.

As it stands, parents in this country are allowed to terminate a pregnancy where the fetus has Down’s syndrome, at any point up to full term. Three adults with Down’s Syndrome are now launching a landmark legal challenge to the Government’s abortion legislation on the grounds that it makes them feel they shouldn’t exist and would be better off dead.

A former Public Health England medical director, Professor Paul Cosford, had never wanted to be a supporter of assisted dying, but after developing incurable lung cancer himself, changed his view and bravely declared his hand in the BMJ.

A poll of 29,000 BMA members found – for the first time – that a majority were in favour of medical professionals being able to prescribe life-ending drugs. The BMA’s position currently is that they are opposed to assisted dying.

A Dutch fertility doctor has been found to have fathered 17 children during the 1980s and 90s, with women who thought they were receiving sperm from anonymous donors.

September
After President Macron turned down his personal appeal for euthanasia, a Frenchman in his fifties, Alain Cocq, suffering from an incurable condition where the walls of his arteries stick together, announced he would refuse drink, food and medicine, and live stream his death. However Facebook said it would block this being broadcast on its forum. M Cocq subsequently said he had lost capacity for the fight, it was too difficult, and he accepted palliative care.

Last year staff at the Gender Identity Development Service raised serious concerns about safeguarding issues relating to the use of inhibitors and the speed or referral for treatment for young people. It transpired that England’s only NHS gender clinic for children knew about recommendations for puberty blockers from an internal review carried out 15 years previously, but failed to implement them. An independent review into these services is underway now to improve access to and delivery of support for these young people.

Who knew there were so many, huh? I shall never be short of material for my novels!

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