The NHS is for life, not just a pandemic

Will the Conservatives take the lessons of coronavirus to heart and recognise the NHS as the vital part of our nation it is? Past behaviour and current showing suggests we must be wary of these clap-happy ministers, who offer much praise but little PPE…

By Mark Cantrell

THE road to Hell — or in this case to a future with no meaningful healthcare for any but the well off — is paved with good intentions.

The path itself, however, is often devised and laid out by those with more nefarious motives.

Right now, the National Health Service (NHS) is in its element. A strange thing to say, no doubt, as it struggles to cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The NHS is fighting for its life, even as it fights for ours.

But as its people place themselves in harm’s way to treat the sick, and save as many as they can, it also reiterates the organisation’s essential place in our nation.

We take it for granted; yet we are lost without it. As a microcosm of our society, in all its diversity; it is our society.

Regardless of gender or sexuality, whether young or old, black or white, native born or immigrant to these shores, the people who make the NHS tick are there to heal us of our hurts the best they can.

Most pertinent, the NHS is there for rich and poor alike; healthcare is no privilege reserved for wealth. Its services are not charity, but the entitlement of citizens, provided on medical need, not the whim of status and favour.

The NHS does not — must not — belong to billionaires or shareholders or insurance firms looking for an easy ride at our expense. Nor does it belong to government, public institution though it is; even if it remains subject to the whims and platitudes of prime ministers and secretaries of state.

No, it is our NHS.

For sure, the NHS doesn’t always live up to the ideals that underpin it. There have been failings and scandals in the provision of care over the years. In practice, not everyone can rely on equality of access consistently. You might say it remains a work in progress.

Our society is beset with serious health inequalities, some of which impinge on NHS resources needlessly; ballooning poverty and the poor quality of too much of Britain’s housing nurture plenty of ill-effects that increase demand for healthcare services.

Then there’s the poor state of social care for elderly and disabled groups, which often results in more frequent hospital visits and longer stays. We call it ‘bed blocking’, as if the patients are hogging the resources, when it’s a systemic failure beyond either the patient’s or the NHS’s reach. We might also mention mental health, which has long been something of a ‘cinderella service’.

No, the NHS isn’t perfect. But like the flaws in a diamond, it’s failings highlight what a jewel of an institution it is. Unlike the gem, of course, fixing its faults only make it gleam the brighter.

We need the NHS. That’s a given. And the NHS needs us; now more than ever.

We are utterly reliant on the NHS to care for our loved ones who have fallen foul of Covid-19, and — we hope — see them through this dreadful disease. In turn, our healthcare professionals, and all those essential (but hitherto dismissed as ‘low skilled’) workers who support them to do their work, are utterly dependent on we, the general public, to do our bit.

Slowing the spread of the disease, that’s our role. So we stay at home, wash our hands, maintain social distancing. We are giving medics the space they need to work; making sure they are not overwhelmed by a deluge of disease. At the same time, in so doing, we are helping them to increase the chance of survival for those who have succumbed to infection.

But the NHS is also utterly reliant on government to have its back. The institution and its people are dependent on the stewardship of politicians; for the adequacy of policy, the trust in its decision-making, and the competency of its planning and resourcing.

Sadly, as we are becoming all too familiar from the daily news, these are lacking to a point beyond parody. That the NHS is fighting for its life is no metaphor; doctors, nurses, care workers, they are dying along with their patients. They are giving their lives for us — and they shouldn’t have to — all for the want of proper PPE and testing.

The Government has demonstrated, in this regard, a critical failure to measure up to the crisis. But then we shouldn’t really be surprised. In so many avenues of life, the Conservative governments of the last 10 years have worked tirelessly to seed crisis after crisis.

Austerity and welfare reform has hollowed out so much of our nation’s social support mechanisms. In education, health, access to good jobs, life opportunities, the Conservatives have presided over a period of widening inequalities. It has stoked a chronic housing crisis, seen a dramatic rise in homelessness, child poverty, hunger and destitution. Food banks, once an eyebrow raising rarity, have become commonplace, as people struggle to feed their families.

There is so much needlessly wrong with our country; all down to the whim, political wrangling, and ideological prejudices of ministers. And that’s without even considering the brouhaha over Brexit, which now seems like nothing more than a half-remembered side note.

In a way, this is all coming home to roost. The coronavirus pandemic has served to highlight so many of the inequalities, inequities, and broken systems left over from efforts to shrink the state and remake British society.

The NHS itself hasn’t emerged unscathed from the Conservatives’ decade-long social re-engineering project. It, too, has faced funding cuts and loss of resources; long-standing staffing issues are compounded by the political games played out around immigration. Overall, it’s capability was weakened by those who should have had its back.

Still, it’s there for us. And we’re fortunate to have it.

Ironically, the social solidarity and self-reliance supposedly set to be unleashed from an overbearing ‘nanny state’ by David Cameron’s notion of the ‘Big Society’ (remember that?), has instead found itself energised in support of an organisation that is, for many free market ideologues, one of nanny’s archetypal institutions.

People want to help. We see it time and again. Whether it’s simply clapping to show appreciation, or businesses offering to manufacture PPE, or individuals stepping up to raise funds for the organisation, we see demonstrated the old adage that the “NHS is our national religion”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Even our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson (wherever he’s currently hiding right now), has acknowledged that he owes his life to the dedication and professionalism of the NHS and its staff. Whether that gratitude manifests in a restoration of a fully resourced public healthcare system in the hereafter remains to be seen. It cannot be left to rely on charity.

The point has been made with increased insistence, lately; as the scandal of the lack of PPE deepens, and as the charitable efforts of individuals such as Captain Tom Moore capture our hearts.

The points are well made. We pay our taxes. We pay National Insurance. We rightly expect the state to fulfil its obligations and its duties to provide and adequately resource a national system of healthcare, free at the point of delivery.

We have seen what happens when the state scales back its provision of society’s essential support mechanisms, leaving charity to fill in the gaps. For all its well-meaning intent and the dedication of those delivering charitable services, it is simply unable to make up the shortfall.

Social security is a case in point. A less generous, more punitive and inflexible system has led to an increase in real hunger amongst some of the poorest households in the land. This has seen the rise in demand for food banks, as charities step in to offer hardpressed families much-needed emergency assistance, but it has been unable to hold back a rising tide of hardship and hunger.

Indeed, since lockdown, many foodbanks have struggled not just to meet demand, but to obtain the necessary donations they need to continue operating. Imagine the same applied to the NHS.

Charity is simply no substitute for the collective capabilities of the State.

Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health, on the first day of the National Health Service, 5 July 1948 at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, near Manchester. Creative Commons: CC BY-SA 2.0

This is not to decry or dismiss the efforts of Captain Moore — the man is an inspiration who has rightly earned praise. Nor indeed, everyone else who takes the time to volunteer, to support charities, or embark on their own fundraising efforts; all credit to them.

Charity has long had a place in supporting the NHS through the good times and the bad, but as with social security, it can offer no sturdy replacement for public provision. Indeed, that really isn’t its role. It needs the State –government — to step up.

Going further, once the pandemic has passed, we might expect government to get off its backside and address that syndrome of long-standing crises; some inherited, others wilfully nurtured.

Invest in social housing of good quality that those one low incomes can truly afford; alleviate the stress and mental strain of our broken housing market. Eradicate poor quality housing; taking away the damaging effects it has on human health. Fix the problem of inadequate social care.

Going further, invest in the regions to rebalance the economy and create secure jobs and decent incomes. Provide a social security safety net that raises people out of hardship, rather than driving people deeper into poverty.

Challenge those who avoid paying tax on their UK businesses, yet expect almost as a matter of right to be granted lucrative government contracts, demand the break-up of public ‘monopolies’ (such as healthcare), or clamour for state support when the going gets tough.

All this and more, we need to see to improve the health and wellbeing of our families, our communities, our society and our economy.

This is akin to the efforts we are being asked to make right now to support the NHS in this pandemic emergency; to lessen the load, so that it’s resources can be brought to bear in the most efficient and effective manner. For too long, it has has been called upon to bear the burden of social ills and malign policies far beyond its remit.

Public healthcare provision is the hallmark of a functioning, modern economy. But it follows, that to operate effectively, it must be supported by a functioning, modern society. And on that score, the pandemic has shown that our political leaders have spent a decade boldly striding towards a more primitive past.

For all our sakes, ministers must not be allowed to use this pandemic crisis as a means to offload healthcare provision as a plum for private corporations, with hardpressed charities left to cover those unable to afford the ‘free’ market’s tender mercies.

We deserve better; the NHS and its people deserve better.

The NHS is not a charity, neither is it a charity case; nor are we.


This article was first published on Mark Cantrell, Author.



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Mark Cantrell

Mark Cantrell

A UK writer and journalist, Mark Cantrell is also the author of two novels: Citizen Zero and Silas Morlock. Read more of his work at