Minister agrees it is time to clear up “very British mess”

In response to UKMA’s patron, Lord Howe, the junior Health Minister, Baroness Thornton said she “absolutely agreed” that it is “time for all of us, in all parties,…. to work together to clear up this long-standing and very British mess.”  She added “This is a matter that will solve itself over time but it is our job in government to move as fast as we can towards people recognising and feeling comfortable using metric calculations.”

The full text of the exchange is printed in Hansard and can be read here.  A video clip may also be viewed at this link.

The background to this exchange was covered in our recent article “NHS risking patients’ lives with imperial scales”, which gives links to the relevant documents.  Briefly, an official report found that, despite previous warnings, 30% of NHS hospitals were still using scales that are switchable between metric and imperial, and 10% were actually being used in imperial mode.  This risks wrong doses of drugs (which are calculated in metric) being administered to vulnerable patients – with possibly disastrous consequences.

The Minister’s statement is welcome as a public confirmation that it really IS Government policy “to move toward full metrication in time” (quoted from a letter from the Science Minister, Lord Drayson).  However, I do have reservations about her comment that “this is a matter that will solve itself in time”.  By this of course she was presumably echoing the widespread assumption that, since children are educated in metric units, as older people die out, metric units will gradually become the default for the general population, and imperial units will fall out of use.  If only this were true …

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise. The alternative view is that, after ca 35 years of metric education in schools, acceptance and use of metric units varies with occupation, educational standard and social class – and also with the mistaken  perception that metric units are “foreign”.  On this view, we have reached a stable but highly unsatisfactory situation of “two systems” with no prospect of resolution – without specific Government action.

The other reservation that one must have about the Minister’s statement – however welcome it may be – is that although she speaks for the Department of Health, the policy is not carried through to other aspects of Government – notably Transport.  We shall return to this point in a forthcoming article.

Going back to the exchange in the House of Lords, it is good that the Health Department is now committed to issuing an “alert” reminding all NHS hospitals of the importance of metric-only scales.  This will reduce the risk of a catastrophic accident resulting from confusion over measurement units.  So let us congratulate Baroness Thornton and hope that, with her support, stones, pounds and ounces can finally be eradicated from the NHS.

14 thoughts on “Minister agrees it is time to clear up “very British mess””

  1. Frankly I’m more than a little hacked off by the contradictions and apparent hypocrisy emanating from the political arena.

    Here we have The Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health with one breath appearing to support the completion of metrication whilst with the next indicating that its fair and reasonable for people to weigh themselves using imperial measures. She totally seems to have missed the point that can best be illustrated by a UK resident who suffers an accident, or becomes ill, and requires immediate medication before transportation to a hospital. This is calculated on the basis dose per unit of body mass in kilograms. Now, this event could be happening in the UK or elsewhere. The injured person uses imperial units to quote their body mass to the medic. In the UK the medic, after time, may or may not get the conversion right. The patient, if asked to confirm their weight in kg hasn’t a clue whether there has been an error because they are unfamiliar with their body mass in kg. Elsewhere in the world the medic wouldn’t have the faintest idea what was being stated. So why didn’t the Under-Secretary of State come out in support of a universal move to body mass and height in metric units by encouraging the noble Lords to do so and thus set an example to all?

    Moving on, Lord Drayson’s statement is contradicted by his then boss, John Denham, Secretary of State for Universities, Innovation and Skills who gloatingly announced to the press “”People in Britain like their pint and their mile. They should be able to use the measures they are most familiar with, and now they can be sure that they will continue to do so.” (see Is this evidence of how government demonstrates that it is to moving as fast as it can towards people recognising and feeling comfortable using metric calculations?

    It really is about time somebody in government showed some political fortitude on this issue.

    What a mess!!


  2. The “it will sort itself out in time” line will continue to hold up the process as it seems clear that people will continue to use imperial units unless they’re exposed to metric on a daily basis.

    As I talk on a daily basis to friends and colleagues who have been educated in Britain, many the same time as I was in the `70s and `80s and many since, it strikes me that those who have had no regular exposure to people outside the UK seem to cling on to imperial because it’s something that their parents use but those who have travelled abroad more often than the odd “Club 18-30” thing are more willing to speak metric.

    What’s more disappointing is hearing “second generation metric” children (those who’s parents were educated in metric too) speaking in imperial measures, this just goes to show that a large portion of this country’s education budget is being wasted while our government clings to this idea that everything will become metric on its own.

    It seems to me, especially looking at the Canadians, that if legislation isn’t used to promote metric then influences from older generations and the USA will continue to hamper the move towards metric and in the longer term this will do nothing for our education, our economy or our health!


  3. Baroness Thornton deserves praise for her positive attitude certainly, but like most of her colleagues in pariament she doesn’t fully appreciate what it takes to make the necessary change.

    The measurement mess in the UK will not “sort itself out”.

    The government and opposition politicians cannot expect the public to change if they wont do it themselves. Road signs, a major obstacle to people learning to use, and think in, metric is entirely under their control.

    And that’s the only way, ultimately, that anyone can learn metric – by using it properly – not constantly swapping back and forth according to the application in hand. Trying to convert in this manner is too difficult and most people end up defaulting back to what they know best.

    Politicians have generally fought shy of changing by compulsion and have even dragged their feet in deselecting imperial units for trade.

    They appear to labour in the mistaken belief that compulsion in this area is tyranical and undemocratic. But they don’t consider that it would only be questionable if the cooercion took us in a direction that was inconsistent with their openly stated intention.

    Once the commitment has been made it should be carried through as painlessly as possible, with reasonably short transition periods. The two systems muddle with no end in sight is the result of the approach that has actually been taken – a situation that no one in their right mind would want.

    So what should they do now, and how can people be made to change? Space does not allow me to do it justice here but broadly it would entail changing road signs (obviously) and regulation in many areas where we already see it e.g. advertising, but made to include metric units of measurement as part of the deal, and promoting the change generally through education and publicity campaigns.

    If the politicians were to have the courage to drive the change through they would have logic on their side and it would be easy to justify in terms of the interests of British society. Most people would come around to it even if they were hostile to begin with.

    It is no good sitting on their hands waiting for public opinion to evolve in the right direction. Some times it is necessary to lead. The public have a right to opinion and to assert it through the democratic process, but it has to be informed opinion based on a proper awareness of the issues. The opinon that counts is the one that emerges from sensible debate and a full knowledge of the consequences that flow from the conclusions that are drawn.

    This is sadly lacking where metrication is concerned.


  4. The point raised about providing one’s weight while traveling outside the UK but (for example) within the EU is one I hadn’t thought of and quite a good one.

    I again raise the point (and agree with the other posters) that this whole notion of the matter sorting itself in time is misguided and erroneous. It is also dishonest since I am utterly convinced that the government (no matter the party in power) would immediately shift gears to proactive and directed completion of metrication shortly after the USA announced it were moving to metricate. That to me indicates that the current government is trying to have its cake and eat it, too, which is most cowardly and short-sighted.

    The Minister should invite a few of the major players from the metrication program in Australia to address the House of Lords and the House of Commons on the matter; I’m certain they would set everyone right about the course of action to be taken and why this is so; moreover, they would be speaking from direct experience!


  5. I just finished watching the video recording of the oral questions for February 25th and found it quite enlightening. (It reminds me of the US Senate, but the House of Lords seems much more refined. 😉

    The other bit that the Minister was questioned on was that of the malnutrition in hospitals and the importance of weighing scales there for that purpose. While metric-only scales were not mentioned explicitly, it seems that a coherent policy (if that is not too much to ask!) would require metric-only weighing scales as well.

    As for the Noble Lady who brought up the issue of cookery books written using Imperial weights and volumes only, I would differ with the Minister (who suggested that the Noble Lady request a dual scale for her next birthday) and propose a “grass roots” effort to encourage publishing houses to republish their cookery books using SI only. 😉


  6. People in the UK speak 2 different languages when it comes to weight; I honestly have no idea how much I weigh in stones and have no intention of wasting my time by going backwards and learning obsolete weights. Some friends are the same, mainly if they are either regular gym-goers or moved here from overseas. But then I have other friends, of my own age, who don’t understand people’s weights in kg, even though they use kg in almost any other situation. We must be the only country on earth where people who grew up in the same place at the same time can’t discuss our weights in the pub without resorting to a calculator! It is absurd that the likes of weight watchers deal only in stones, perpetuating this mess, when many of us have used kilograms for decades, and this issue needs a push, it won’t be solved by inaction.


  7. “It will sort itself out in time” won’t happen if those laws now prohibiting metrication in some sectors are not changed to at least allow for metric units to be used. If the law forbidding metric units to be used on some road signs is changed to the permissive use of any unit, then metric road signs will begin to appear naturally until they eventually are all metric. This is what happened in Ireland until finally in 2005 Ireland made it official and completed what had not changed.

    If it would be legal to have a pub offer any size instead of being forced to use pints, you would see pint sizes disappear in favour of metric sizes. It would be cheaper to purchase the same size glasses used elsewhere instead of having a special size not used outside the UK.

    As with the woman who spoke about her cookbooks, this can be easily solved by not having to get a new scale or new cook books. If the government were to de-legalize imperial units and allow for the units to gradually take on rounded metric values colloquially, such as a pound of 500 g, then it would be easy for someone to use old cook books with a new scale.


  8. The main game here is the confusion in the hospitals. This is a time to press the Minister, asking what concrete plans she has made to replace the weighing machines in the hospitals, when the new scales will be rolled out and how much the changeover will cost. Pin her down! Let her know that you plan to hold her to her promise to do something about the mess NOW and not “in time”. Otherwise her promise is just hot air.

    Think of the reality of the health system. Local health area are not going to move unless they are pushed, and even then a good number of them are going to drag their heels because it will cost them money to replace their old scales. If it’s important to replace the scales, then the Minister will have to take steps to ensure that it happens, and happens soon.

    Write to local health areas and ask them what plans they have to replace the old dual scales with metric only scales. If they don’t have plans or claim they don’t have the money, get back to the Minister. Let the Minister know that this is a question that will not go away.

    Get on to the Opposition. They will relish any stick to beat the Government with, and what better one than old scales that can give misleading readings in the old measures! The tabloid press will also love this story if it’s a way to cry Shock! Horror!

    Go to doctors’ organisations and ask what they are doing about this issue. Let them know that this is something that can be fixed, and should be fixed now.

    This is a situation where just one or two determined people can make a real difference to the response of the NHS to this dangerous situation of switchable scales in hospitals and NHS health facilities.


  9. Having watched the questions and answers at
    I was extremely disappointed, though not surprised, to note that in the wider shots of the chamber neither their Lordships Adonis (Secretary of State for Transport) nor Mandelson (Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills) appeared to be present. How convenient for a government that appears to put political expediency before rationality and long term benefits to the country.


  10. Re Jeremiah’s comment above.

    Just for clarification, the Irish changeover to metric road signs was not the result of a voluntary process following a liberal change in law allowing metric as well as imperial.

    Distance signs were changed gradually using normal replacement to reduce cost. Speed limit signs were changed instantly (at the end of that period) because it wasn’t practical or safe to have a mixture of mph and km/h.

    The project was phased but decisive, and was managed officially throughout.


  11. The NHS needs to go completely SI; not just ensure that metric scales are used, it must also ‘Shed Calories’. The “Calorie” often written as “calorie” means “kilocalorie” – it’s confusing and is not the legal unit for food energy.
    In 1972 The Royal Society published a report on nutrition stating that the word ‘calorie’ should not be used. One example it gave was ‘calorie intake’ should be replaced by ‘energy intake’.
    For foods, energy values should be given in kilojoules (kJ).

    Sadly the NHS website is full of references to calories, for example:
    ‘How many calories do I need a day?’

    In January 2009, Barry Bolton, Head of editorial production, NHS Choices, wrote:
    “For the time being we will be sticking to “calories” as our primary food energy unit because it is one of which most of our users have some understanding.
    We are, however, considering introducing a short explanation of
    kilojoules/calories on appropriate pages in an effort to foster greater
    understanding of the SI unit.”

    Now it’s time for the NHS to phase out the Calorie/calorie/kilocalorie. NHS Dieticians and Nutritionists should play their part in “Shedding Calories” and use only SI units.

    And all gym machines in hospitals should also show SI units.


  12. Not much chance of the matter resolving itself with time while we have campaigns on the BBC and elsewhere extolling the young to run a mile for Sport Relief. Why a mile for goodness sake, when athletics is totally metric? There appears to be no mention of any metric distance events, or encouragement to use them, by the organisers at where there is even a page for teachers! Just how out of touch and Luddite can these organisations get? Not that I’m against the fund raising, just against the potential effects on the education of the young and therefore future competitiveness of my country by this sort of lunacy.

    Come on political establishment, get it sorted out, and quickly!


  13. The report above states

    “Briefly, an official report found that, despite previous warnings, 30% of NHS hospitals were still using scales that are switchable between metric and imperial, and 10% were actually being used in imperial mode.”

    If you read the report, you will see that the percentage of “dual” weighing machines in use decreased from around 40% to under 30% between 2008 & 2009.

    The report also makes clear (which the summary above does not) that the figure of “10% imperial” refers to 10% of the 30% of dual scales.

    In other words, the figures could be presented as

    70% metric only
    27% dual (but indicating metric)
    3% dual (but indicating imperial only)
    0% imperial only

    I would agree that this is not perfect, but it is a huge improvement since medical weighing equipment was firstly prescribed in 2003 and the year-on-year improvements can be seen over the 2 surveys undertaken in 2008 & 2009. [So that’s alright, then? – Editor]

    Finally, I would point out the latest advice on metric-only equipment can be found at

    Click to access dh_114048.pdf

    It includes the following advice

    “From now on, scales purchased for medical purposes should only be capable of metric display. There should be no capacity for switching or dual readouts. Trusts should be aware of the pitfalls of using switchable scales and may wish to consider replacing them or having the switches removed”

    [Better late than never – but it is odd that anybody should seek to defend the dilatoriness of the NHS in removing the obvious source of a possibly disastrous accident (as pointed out by Lord Walton in the videoclip). Happily, the Minister was not so complacent in her response. In fact, the “alert” referred to also goes on to say:
    “Healthcare providers should … draw up an action plan to address the recommendations of the (LACORS) report by the 30th July 2010… To comply with the action … there will need to be in place a prioritised action plan with realistic timescales for replacing equipment. A maximum period of 12 months to replace equipment is considered a reasonable timescale.” – Editor]


  14. One reason why the UK has got stuck in the middle of two measurement systems is because of the painfully slow conversion process, which has meant that we have had to pay the costs of metrication without the full benefit of a single, rational measurement system that everyone uses and understands. Another reason why we are stuck is because metrication has become associated with the European Union and politicians are too scared to address this issue as they are afraid of losing votes and of the reactions of the tabloid press.

    Thus we have the unacceptable situation where two measurement systems are often used for labelling products and for height and width restriction signs and two measurement systems are often used in the same newspaper articles, even to measure the same physical quantity. You only have to see the random mix-and-match approach to measurements in the Highway Code to see what a mess we are in.


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