My National Health Service number was not hard to remember “POVJ 46.” To be honest, even in the 1970s it seemed rather too brief. If one used every possible four letter sequence combination of the letters of the alphabet, twenty-six times twenty-six times twenty-six times twenty-six, one reached a total of 456,976 permutations between AAAA and ZZZZ. Then if one multiplied that by one hundred, the number of possible two digit numbers between 00 and 99, one came to a total of 45,697,600. To provide an NHS number for that many people would have required the immediate reallocation of every number upon the death of the previous holder of the number and even then it was a total ten million short of the population of the United Kingdom at the time. Presumably, the brief letter and number sequences were used in conjunction with some other factor, perhaps one’s county or district, in order to provide a sufficient supply of numbers for the entire population. Maybe there are lots of people out there who once had “POVJ 46” as their health service card number.
From numbers seeming far to brief, there seems to have been an inflationary process at work. It became noticeable with Irish television license numbers. There are, perhaps, two million homes in Ireland that require a television license, it was odd therefore to note that my television license number was 2401249878. Were ten digits really necessary when seven or eight would have provided an ample sufficiency? Even my United Kingdom passport has only a nine digit number.
Returning to the care of the National Health Service yesterday, an appointment being required in order to be fully registered, the thought occurred as to whether any trace of POVJ 46 named. The consultation was brief. Medications were noted and a repeat prescription written. The blood pressure was taken (a satisfying 120/60). The GP said, “I’ll see you in a year’s time.” Then came the moment of disappointment, the prescription handed to me bore my new NHS number: the six character number of former times had been replaced by a ten digit number. There was a momentary disappointment, a temptation to ask when the new numbers had been introduced, but the doctor looked as though he might be too young to remember such distant times.
Of course, the old system might have been retained. Two extra letters added to the existing four letters and two digits would have provided more than thirty billion possible permutations – enough to please even the most demanding of bureaucratic minds and much easier to remember than sequences of numbers.