Run a red light and get a broken leg
Posted on December 6th, 2012

Dr.Tilak Fernando

Although it appeared to be somewhat complex to understand the underground railway network and the sophisticated time tables at major British Rail stations such as Paddington, Victoria, Kings Cross, Charing Cross, London Bridge and Waterloo where Flicker Row method with flipping train time tables operated, one could build up confidence and familiarise with the system with ease, but one thing that took some time to come to grips with was the old English money which was in Pounds (£), Shillings (“ƒ”¹…”s’) and Pennies (“ƒ”¹…”d’) – 20 Shillings or 240 pennies making one Pound, and the penny further sub-divided into two halfpennies or four farthings (quarter pennies).

After the decimalisation in 1971 it was much easier with Pounds and the new Pence (100 new pence making one Pound) while various other denominations such as farthing, h’penny, penny, thru penny bit, sixpence, shilling, two bob bit, half crown ten bob note, pound note, five pound note and the guinea (which was just a value and not a coin) died a gradual death. However, the British public took a long time to get accustomed to decimalisation; equally with metrication coming to force “ƒ”¹…”old fashioned’ English traders preferred imperial units to metric for a long time.

Foreign exchange

Petrol was sold in gallons and cost only 32 pence. Motorists could fill up their Austin Mini fuel tanks with only Pounds 1. A pint of milk (home delivered) which has seen a gradual death after UK joined the European Union cost 2 ½ d, a telephone call (from a red pillar box) cost 2p for a three minute duration. A cinema ticket cost only 55p and most importantly, a week’s grocery bill, out of a local corner shop, cost less than Pounds 2!

UK’s National Health Service is a publicly funded healthcare system

Students, who could not obtain foreign exchange due to stringent Sri Lankan Exchange Control systems which were in force during Mrs. Bandaranaike’s regime, could not afford much to spend lavishly but had to find liberally available part time jobs, particularly security guard jobs or at Super Markets for a payment of Pound 1 an hour (Pound 1= Rs.15 ). In rented out rooms where students lived, coin-operated electricity and gas meters (installed by landlords) cost 20p-30p a week. One needed to use electricity or gas to heat up the place and in certain cases the only other alternative to heat up a room was by using a paraffin heater where one had to put up with kerosene oil fumes and the stench!

At early stages, no one could afford a house mortgage for two reasons, one due to the conditions attached to a student’s passport, secondly while doing part time jobs it only appeared as building castles in the air! However, with the passage of time, many immigrants and students have found loopholes in the Law to bypass these barriers and become house owners and rich mudalalis by renting out rooms to other students (while being students) and for those on refugee queues! This “ƒ”¹…”revolutionsed’ trend has shifted the status of a “ƒ”¹…”student’, and the British authorities looking at the problem through hawk’s eyes have managed to plug many a loophole that existed in the immigration law .

With the decimalisation, prices began to increase seemingly where bus ride which was originally 3d went up to 5P and 10P. When one travels in London today, it will shock an “ƒ”¹…”old timer’ to find how the transport charges, leave along other consumer goods, have sky rocketed compared with our first memories of old “ƒ”¹…”thrupenny bit (3d) rides in the underground railway and the 10 shillings that helped to buy a whole frozen chicken from a “ƒ”¹…”corner shop’.

With the escalation of immigration and the arrival of Indian community “ƒ”¹…”corner shop’ operation became popular and went into major franchise maneuver. The British are usually crazy over soccer which has become a national game where there is big money for the players. Soccer has certainly superseded the national game of Cricket in England now. With the sudden increase in the volume of Indian owned, “ƒ”¹…”corner shops’ (later spreading into other nationalities) the phrase “ƒ”¹…”corner shop’ seemingly entered the British TV comedy programmes too when some comedians chose to make pun out of making audiences laugh by asking: “Why don’t Indians play football”? As the audience kept on guessing for a few seconds, the answer came out swiftly from the comedian himself saying: “Because, every time there is a corner kick there would be a corner shop’! which lead to a roar of laughter! That was British humour!!

National insurance

Next vital thing for a new arrival in the UK was to obtain a National Insurance number which was the legal passport to healthcare. One had to apply for a National Insurance Number from the Department of Employment and Productivity, which has now transformed into “ƒ”¹…”Job Centres’. Bona fide students required a letter from the their seats of learning confirming their status as full time students, without which there was (is) no hope of registering a name with a General Practitioner.

Many Sri Lankans do blindly travel to England without thinking much about health insurance covers.

It needs to be emphasised that unless one holds a British National Health Insurance number one cannot seek any medical attention as a visitor except in the case of a deserving emergency situation. Today in a much sophisticated Sri Lankan society there are facilities for one to obtain a health insurance cover before travel and popular credit card companies offer health insurance packages linked to air tickets.

Once there was a “ƒ”¹…”touch and go’ situation with regard to a Sri Lankan who visited London. Two business colleagues booked into a hotel and decided to do some “ƒ”¹…”window shopping’ and tried to cross the road on a yellow zebra crossing controlled by “ƒ”¹…”pelican’ lights. As they stood on the pavement lights turned green for pedestrians and dozens of people started to cross the road. When the green light turned red with a bleep, one visitor managed to cross over while the other became panic-stricken and started running across the road in a typical Sri Lankan fashion through the red light for pedestrians. A motor car travelling at speed hit the guy right on the crossing breaking his leg into three parts. The driver was not arrested by Police for reckless driving as he did not break the law by going through green lights; there were no ugly scenes either like in Sri Lanka where the driver was pulled out and beaten up, by bystanders. Obviously the pedestrian was in the wrong.

An ambulance rushed him to the nearest hospital for “ƒ”¹…”emergency’ treatment, but he had to undergo two operations. The third major operation had to be done in a different hospital and he was advised that it could cost up to Pounds 20,000 (Rs. 4,120,000) as he did not come under the National Health and had to treat as a private patient!

Being a businessman and using a Gold credit card he managed to pay hospital bills up to two operations but could not afford the final surgery as the Card Insurance did not cover up to such limits. He had no option but to fly back to Sri Lanka with (a stretched out leg in plaster and metal rods in place) and my wife and I helped him to arrange a SriLankan flight to get back.

Health risks

This goes to show how risky it would be to travel to the West without any health insurance as all doors are now closed for free treatment. The abuse of the National Health Service has been the cause for Health Authorities to block all loose ends in the system which at one time were cleverly exploited by many foreign women who came to England for abortions and confinements to deliver babies in the UK. Gone are the days!

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