Waiting for god… knows what

The famous British acceptance of a queue is being tested by public services close to collapse. This may not be a bad thing.

James Tate
6 min readDec 3, 2022

To be British is to love queuing. The ability to form a queue and progress to its often anticlimactic conclusion without much complaint is a source of national pride. When faced with challenges, the citizens of some countries take to the streets in protest (the French) or address the problem with logic (Germany). The British form a queue. It’s in our nature.

The British acceptance of queuing comes from the same national repository of resignation as “mucking in”, “mustn’t grumble,” and “could be worse.” To the British, adherence to the golden rules of queuing (no barging in / no saving places) is a mark of civilisation in a world overrun by savage hordes for whom taking a ticket with more than one digit and waiting for their number to be called is inconceivable.

Whether it’s lining up to get into Wimbledon in its final week, picnic at hand, or leering in a provincial town’s kebab shop in the small hours, the same queue discipline applies – even if minor digressions are treated rather differently in the latter.

The British love of a queue explains why David Beckham is safe despite his involvement in a sports-washing World Cup in the Middle East: the gay icon may have taken millions of pounds to support a corrupt regime that denies LGBT rights, but he queued for 13 hours to see the Queen lying in state, earning the respect of everyone in a country that knows a good queue when it sees one. It also explains the fury sparked when morning TV presenters Holly Willoughby and Philip Schofield were deemed to have jumped the same queue (sample news headline: “Can Schofield and Willoughby recover from Queen’s queue fallout?)

The country’s epic embrace of waiting may be tested in the coming months, however, as its health system freezes up, its courts grind to a halt, and the police don’t turn up to incidents.

What is being termed ‘Backlog Britain’ redefines what it means to queue: more than seven million people are waiting on elective treatment under the National Health Service (NHS) – nearly double the number in 2008.

Only 60% of cancer patients began treatment within two months of referral in September 2022, despite a government target of 85%. The last time this target was hit was December 2015. Some 15% of patients wait more than 104 days for treatment following an urgent referral for suspected cancer. The number of these “long waiters” has more than doubled since 2015.

Even getting to hospital involves waiting. In July 2022, more than 1 in 10 ambulances waited over an hour — up from almost 1 in 50 in 2019. This week an 85-year-old with a broken hip waited 40 hours to get to A&E. British soldiers wounded in remote parts of Afghanistan could expect to be in medical facilities at Camp Bastian inside the “golden hour.” It took nearly two days for a pensioner with a broken hip to make it into the Royal Cornwall Hospital.

And it’s not just the NHS. There was a backlog of 62,000 cases in the criminal courts at the end of September 2022, with judges fearing total collapse. The number of asylum seekers waiting for their claims to be processed has risen by more than 110,000 since 2018, with a record 143,377 claimants awaiting decisions in September this year. This increase isn’t wholly explained by a rise in asylum applications, either, as while they have doubled since 2016, the backlog has risen fourfold over the same time. It strikes me that waiting in some dismal, cold and overcrowded accommodation might be the ideal primer for those unfamiliar with what it’s like to live in Britain in 2022. Perhaps it’s the first part of the Life in the UK citizenship test?

The government’s response to this dire state of affairs is as lamentable as it is predictable. Firstly, it promises to “remove the red tape” that hinders the NHS; a promise made and left unfulfilled by countless previous governments of various shades and persuasions. More importantly, the government also wants to reduce the same targets that the health service has failed to meet, ensuring that the wait appears shorter. It’s similar to the Soviet re-categorisation of horses as tractors as a means of demonstrating unstoppable progress towards modernity.

No, British stoicism in face of a lengthy wait is under severe pressure and it’s hard to see patience can hold. And when it goes, it could go big. Think of those usually placid and forbearing middle-aged Brits who finally snap in the face of one bureaucratic error too many. Famously buttoned up, the British literally lose their shit when pushed too far. And winter 2022 — much like summer 2022, in fact, for different reasons – has faeces smeared all over it.

It would only take a few people to explode in A&E when loved ones are left unseen, shout at phone operators when ambulances don't appear, or lose their temper with dentist receptionists who insist there are no appointments until 2024, for the famous British stiff upper lip to quiver, tighten and form the ghastly ‘o’ around a primal scream of profound depth and duration. In the long queues now forming for services on which we rely — and support through ever-increasing taxes — even isolated cases of frustration could pass virally from one individual to another, inspiring insurrection across the country, uniting a people who really won't take this anymore, thank you very much.

It would, of course, be totally on message for riots across post-Brexit, post-Covid, post-‘mini budget’ Britain to be prompted not by economic stagnation, political ineptitude or social squalor; but the inability to see a GP. It’s a small thing, but key to a functioning society.

It’s not like putting up with inflation at 85%, in Turkey, or living under a regime that stops millions of people from going outside, as in ‘Zero Covid’ China. But access to the NHS, in particular, is one of the pillars of British public life, and hospital waiting rooms are as good a battleground as any financial district or government building.

In this respect, the government’s plans to remove targets in order to reduce the backlog should be seen not so much as ‘playing with fire’, as inviting Richard ‘Zippo’ Chamberlain’s incompetent electrical engineer for a dip in the penthouse pool of petroleum atop a 1:20 model of the ‘Towering Inferno’; an incendiary Jenga made from stacked fire-lighters.

Maybe I’m wrong, and the insurrection prompted by frustration with a crumbling public sector won’t take place. Maybe I’m underestimating British forbearance when faced with a waiting room TV screen that both advertises incontinence pads and advises there is a current waiting time of seven hours. Maybe the queues will gradually shorten, and the waiting times will come down before the country loses its shit.

Indeed, there is even reason to favour such an opinion. Despite the clueless efforts of a series of floundering governments, queues might indeed grow shorter, and tempers could perhaps ease for the simple reason that more Britons will die before reaching the end of the queue.

Yes, while waiting times have grown in our current age of technological and social progress, the life expectancy of a Briton has, er, fallen since 2014. We are dying sooner, even if our smartphones are smarter. I couldn’t find stats that show how many of these early deaths are cancer patients not seen in time, or pensioners who die on a kitchen floor waiting for an ambulance. I expect there are a few.

It’s the ultimate means of addressing the backlog and improving public services, I suppose: let natural causes thin out the population. Stalin himself would have approved.



James Tate

A pick and mix of words; now online, better packaged and more expensive, like everything post-COVID. The sour cherries are best. The opinions are my own.