DAN HODGES: We have a duty to stop saying NHS can do no wrong 

DAN HODGES: If NHS really is the jewel in the crown, we have a patriotic duty to stop saying it can do no wrong

It reached the pinnacle – or nadir, depending on your point of view – with Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony. 

The glamorous nurses danced, their youthful patients bounced joyously and the whole world saw how much the British loved their NHS.

Indeed, as Sir Keir Starmer told the nation last week, it’s nothing less than our patriotic duty to love our NHS. 

This is the Great NHS Paradox. The Defenders of the NHS claim it is the jewel in the crown of our national services. They hold it up as an example of what it truly means to be great and to be British. Yet they tell us on an annual basis that it is falling apart and not fit for purpose

This is the Great NHS Paradox. The Defenders of the NHS claim it is the jewel in the crown of our national services. They hold it up as an example of what it truly means to be great and to be British. Yet they tell us on an annual basis that it is falling apart and not fit for purpose

The 1945 Labour Government was led by ‘titans’ who ‘took the spirit of collective sacrifice generated by the war and turned it into the National Health Service for which we are so thankful today’, he claimed.

And when it’s presented like that, who would dare argue? How can mere mortals quibble with the giants of ’45? Much better that we all doff our caps, express gratitude, and go on our way.

Well, someone’s going to have start quibbling. Because our ongoing deification of the NHS is what’s ultimately going to destroy it.

Look, for example, at the way the NHS’s stoutest defenders have been frantically uprooting the goalposts during the course of the Omicron crisis.

A month ago the new strain of the virus was set to bring unprecedented death and chaos to the wards. 

According to the latest statistics from NHS Providers, adult critical bed occupancy is at 75.2 per cent, its lowest level since the start of the winter reporting window, and lower than this time last year (79.5 per cent), as well as compared with two years ago (82.4 per cent). University Hospital, Coventry is seen above

According to the latest statistics from NHS Providers, adult critical bed occupancy is at 75.2 per cent, its lowest level since the start of the winter reporting window, and lower than this time last year (79.5 per cent), as well as compared with two years ago (82.4 per cent). University Hospital, Coventry is seen above

Dame Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, warned that it represented ‘the most significant threat’ since the emergence of Covid. Sage’s modelling grimly predicted a peak of 6,000 fatalities a day by mid-January.

The Defenders of the NHS immediately took to the barricades. New restrictions needed to be put in place right away. A circuit-breaker lockdown should be introduced. The NHS had to be safeguarded, regardless of cost.

Then the picture changed. It became clear that South Africa’s health experts had been right all along. Omicron was indeed milder.

The data had not, as Sir Chris Whitty claimed, been ‘over-interpreted’. The predicted wave of deaths failed to materialise. And while hospitalisations rose, they remained well below the peaks seen earlier in the pandemic.

At which point the Defenders of the NHS changed their story. Yes, Omicron was milder. But it was infecting huge numbers of NHS workers. Their absence was bringing the service close to collapse. Just look at what was happening in London, they argued.

So we did. And while pressure mounted, the NHS in the capital was able to absorb it. Staff absences actually fell. As, finally, did admissions. At which point the Defenders of the NHS changed tack once more. OK, London may have just about coped, they conceded, but wait and see what happens in the rest of England.

So, again, let’s do that. According to the latest statistics from NHS Providers, adult critical bed occupancy is at 75.2 per cent, its lowest level since the start of the winter reporting window, and lower than this time last year (79.5 per cent), as well as compared with two years ago (82.4 per cent).

Pressure has increased on the ambulance service, but the number of A&E diverts are ‘similar to last year’. Overall, bed occupancy rates are described as ‘relatively stable’.

All of which points to a service under strain. But not one teetering on the brink of collapse – though it’s very hard to judge, given that the Defenders of the NHS tell us it’s about to collapse every winter. ‘A&E faces worst ever winter, top doctor warns’ (Guardian, 2015). ‘NHS hospitals facing toughest winter yet, say health experts’ (Guardian, 2016). ‘NHS faces even worse winter crisis than last year, watchdog warns’ (Guardian, 2017). ‘Hospitals in race to combat toughest ever winter crisis for NHS’ (Guardian, 2018).

This is the Great NHS Paradox. The Defenders of the NHS claim it is the jewel in the crown of our national services. They hold it up as an example of what it truly means to be great and to be British. Yet they tell us on an annual basis that it is falling apart and not fit for purpose.

Every one of us can recite an experience of receiving exceptional treatment at the hands of the NHS. And every one of us has had an experience where the NHS has treated us, or those we love, with contempt

Every one of us can recite an experience of receiving exceptional treatment at the hands of the NHS. And every one of us has had an experience where the NHS has treated us, or those we love, with contempt

Throughout the pandemic, we have been instructed to follow the data and the facts. But now Omicron is being weaponised to make a broader political point about the state of the NHS.

So the Defenders of the NHS will dispense with all that, and quickly return to cloaking the saintly service in myth, anecdote and hyperbole.

Take the debate surrounding NHS funding. How many times have we all heard the words ‘Whatever happened to that extra £350 million a week for the NHS we were going to get after Brexit?’ Photos of Boris standing next to his battle-bus are routinely trotted out as evidence of his populist mendacity.

But those pictures were taken in 2016. According to the King’s Fund, in 2016-17 the Department of Health and Social Care budget was £137.4 billion. 

In 2021-22 it had risen to £159 billion in real terms – and on top of that was an additional £22 billion of Covid-related emergency funding.

So not an additional £350 million a week, but £423 million a week.

Whatever happened to the NHS’s Brexit money? It got invested in the NHS. At which point the Defenders of the NHS shrugged and carried on telling everyone the evil Tories were starving it of cash anyway. But to even point out that fact is sacrilege. In fact, to express anything other than ritualistic adoration for our perennially ‘hard-working’ NHS staff is to commit a thought crime.

Which is why no senior politician would dare. There is cross-party agreement that to do anything other than bow down at the foot of the NHS altar is to embark on the fast track to political oblivion.

And Lord protect the foolish politician who attempts even the most modest NHS reform. The Home Office is often regarded as the graveyard of careers. But of the 31 men and women who have been Health Secretary since the end of the Second World War, not one has gone on to be Prime Minister.

So we continue to obediently genuflect to our great health deity. We do our civic duty, and applaud the work of our NHS carers. And in many cases it’s well earned.

But in a significant number of cases it’s not. Every one of us can recite an experience of receiving exceptional treatment at the hands of the NHS. And every one of us has had an experience where the NHS has treated us, or those we love, with contempt.

I remember the time I was in hospital and watched the man next to me being wheeled out for his operation, only for him to be wheeled back an hour later because the procedure they were about to perform was meant for another patient.

I can still feel the anger when I had to fight to get a terminally ill relative pain relief in their last 24 hours of life. And the casual tone of the hospital operator as they informed me another relative who had gone in for a routine appointment had been taken to the emergency resuscitation unit.

We all have stories like that. But it’s not the done thing to voice them. So we continue to chant Keir Starmer’s mantra of gratitude. And place the blame for any problems on underfunding and Mrs Thatcher.

This morning the Defenders of the NHS are worried. Omicron isn’t playing out as many of them hoped. Not enough of us are dying. Too few of us are occupying the emergency wards. The underfunded, criminally neglected, soon-to-be-privatised health service isn’t collapsing in the way they warned it would.

Of course, all that may still happen. But then, if it does, surely that would be even more reason to have an open discussion about whether throwing ever greater amounts of public money at the imploding monolith is the answer.

Sir Keir is wrong. It’s not our patriotic duty to cherish the NHS. It’s our duty to have an honest debate about how the NHS can cherish us.

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