Alex Spillius, Toby Helm and Celia Hall
The wife of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, was pushed ahead in the queue for emergency treatment at an NHS hospital after Government officials intervened on her behalf, it was claimed yesterday.
Mr Lee said that his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, 82, who had suffered a stroke, was given a brain scan four and a half hours earlier than planned at the Royal London Hospital after medical staff were contacted by Downing Street.
On arrival at the NHS hospital in the early hours of last Monday, Mr Lee said he was horrified to be told that his wife was “not as important” as three heart attack patients also awaiting treatment.
Staff told the former prime minister that she would have to wait until 8am for a scan.
At 2am, a despairing Mr Lee rang his High Commissioner, Michael Teo, who, he said, “contacted No 10”.
“Because of 10 Downing Street the CT scan was done at 3.30am,” said an emotional Mr Lee as he recounted the experience after the couple’s return home. “And the blood clot could be seen clearly.”
Despite the swift treatment, Mr Lee was critical of the NHS and the hospital and decided to fly his wife back to Singapore in a specially converted jet, against the advice of the doctors.
Yesterday, both Downing Street and the Foreign Office denied intervening in any way to accelerate the treatment for Mrs Lee who had collapsed while staying at the Four Seasons Hotel in Canary Wharf, east London.
A Downing Street spokesman said the first it had heard of Mrs Lee’s problem was at around 5am, after her treatment, when a policeman accompanying the couple rang to pass on information. “We did not intervene in any way at all,” he said.
A Foreign Office official said that a late-night duty officer was contacted by the Singapore High Commission at 12.30am to say Mrs Lee had been taken to the Royal London Hospital.
The duty officer then rang the hospital’s accident and emergency department to check she was there and spoke briefly to a nurse.
But the spokesman said there was no plea for special treatment.
“At no point did he seek to get preferential treatment for Mrs Lee,” he said. “We recognise that it would be entirely inappropriate to do so.”
The spokesman said the reason that the official rang the hospital was because the caller from the High Commission had seemed “very vexed” and he needed to establish the facts.
Mr Lee was left umimpressed by the NHS. He told how the couple had had to wait 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at the hotel, for a 10-minute journey to the hospital. London Ambulance Service’s log differed from Mr Lee’s account in some of the timings, but an LAS spokesman admitted that Mrs Lee had waited too long.
“We received the call at 12.20 am and reached the patient at two minutes past one, which is about 40 minutes. We are trying to find out what the problem was on this occasion,” he said.
Doctors at the Royal London advised Mr Lee to keep his wife there for three weeks until she stabilised fully, but he preferred to run the risk of flying her home for 14 hours on Singapore Airlines just three days after her collapse.
A passenger jet was converted into a “mobile hospital” with two intensive care nurses, two doctors, oxygen and a drip and flown from Singapore.
“We weighed the odds and decided to take the risk,” said Mr Lee. “They were sure she wouldn’t bleed but going on the aircraft she can have a spasm, then big trouble,” he said.
His wife is now recovering at Singapore General Hospital.
The Royal London Hospital declined to comment directly on the case.
A spokesman said: “Barts and the London NHS Trust has a duty to protect patient confidentiality and is unable to discuss an individual patient’s care without their consent.
“We can confirm, however, that Barts and the London is a teaching hospital trust with neurology as a speciality.
“Should a patient present themselves to the A & E department at the Royal London Hospital with neurological problems at any time of the day or night, they would undergo a period of examination, resuscitation, and preliminary investigations and further diagnosis imaging, such as CT scanning, on the basis of clinical need.
“Patients are assessed and treated according to clinical priority. No patient would be prioritised to the clinical detriment of other patients.”
Mr Lee, who like his wife of 56 years was educated at Cambridge, said of the Royal London: “Once upon a time, it was a wonderful hospital.
“But after 40-plus years the system cannot deliver. There’s no connection between those in the system and the patients.”