Lost In Translation

The Daily Mail reports the confounding story that a baby boy was rushed to hospital in north Wales because his parents were unable to fill his prescription – because the prescription was written in Welsh only.

A sick baby was rushed to hospital after a supermarket pharmacy refused to hand his medication to his father because part of the prescription had been written in Welsh.

Aled Mann, 34, took the prescription from the family doctors to his local Morrisons pharmacy counter after his one-year-old son Harley developed a chest infection.

But staff at the supermarket in Bangor, north Wales, refused to give him the steroid tablets because they could not read the note as not all of it was in English.

The father was ultimately able to return to the GP surgery and get a new prescription printed in English and have the prescription filled, but the baby’s condition worsened overnight requiring hospitalisation, leading to speculation and conjecture that the delay (and hence the pharmacy’s unwillingness to fill a prescription that it could not adequately verify) was to blame.

The incident seems to have caused something of an uproar, but not in quite the way that I imagined. For some reason I had expected the consternation to centre on the fact that GPs in Wales are able to issue prescriptions in a language not spoken by the majority of the people in that country (and therefore inevitably more difficult for patients to redeem), but instead the ire is trained more squarely at the retailer, Morrisons, for not making sufficient effort to cater to the needs of the customer.

I love Wales and admire its people, history and natural beauty very much, so I am going to tread carefully here. I’m also a fervent unionist, as any frequent reader of this blog will know, and believe that Wales should remain an integral part of the United Kingdom – but again this is not relevant to the point I am about to make.

To me, this is an issue of public safety. Surely, in a country where everyone speaks English and only a relatively small minority speak or otherwise use the Welsh language, it is in the interests of the patient, and of common sense, for the prescription to be printed in the language which is common to everyone.

The undercurrent of sentiment surrounding the story seems to be that the Welsh parents were in some way discriminated against, and that their baby’s life was endangered, due to the fact that they receive their family healthcare services in the Welsh language. We can thus extrapolate and infer that the correct thing to have done, in the eyes of those who are upset, would have been for Morrisons to employ either only bilingual speakers in their stores, or to ensure that there is at least one bilingual speaker on hand in the pharmacy department at all times. Indeed, the Mail records Arfon Wyn, a local councillor, saying as much on the record:

‘This is totally diabolical. It is the trend of these large supermarkets not to employ bilingual local people and so such terrible events as this can take place.’

But would the real discrimination not arise if employers felt compelled, or were legally compelled, to hire only bilingual speakers at the expense of English-only speakers? Indeed, given that only 15% of Welsh citizens are able to read, write and speak the language with fluency, could it not also precipitate an enormous skills gap and labour shortage?

Here is an image of the prescription in question:


As readers can clearly see, the instructions on the prescription are printed bilingually, in both English and in Welsh. I understand that this is in accordance with the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, which also created the role of Welsh Language Commissioner who is entrusted with ensuring that Welsh is not treated less favourably than the English language in Wales, and that people can live their day-to-day lives through the medium of Welsh if they choose to do so. The patient-specific parts of the prescription, however, contain crucial information which is in Welsh only.

I would suggest that Dr. Ieuan Parry’s office is not serving its patients very well by providing prescriptions that run the risk of not being understood. Legally, they are completely in the right – indeed, Welsh is technically the only language accorded anything like official status in the whole of the UK – but practically and morally, I am not so sure.

I understand that the maintenance and preservation of the Welsh language is a very dearly held and important issue for some people. But we are talking about a medical prescription for a baby boy being printed with the key parts only in Welsh, a language with which 73% of the people have no familiarity (according to the 2011 census). Some may choose to be outraged at Morrisons for falling short, but I choose to feel more disappointment in the fact that patient safety was effectively jeopardised in pursuit of what seems to be a transparently cultural or political end.

If the goal is the preservation and extension of the Welsh language, Welsh-only prescriptions seems a lousy way of advancing that dream.

Or am I missing something?


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