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Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
It’s been a bad week for the heretics among us who do not worship at the altar of Britain’s National Health Service.
Unlike Lord Ashcroft (of this parish), the news that the NHS was being awarded the George Cross did not cause our souls to rejoice, but our hearts to sink. And with even Her Majesty the Queen being caught up in the cult of this over-mighty bureaucracy, NHS naysayers started to wonder how long it would be before they were treated like religious dissenters of old – and burned at the stake. Matt Hancock can easily be pictured setting a flaming torch to the faggots.
The secret of the Queen’s success during her exemplary reign is being above politics. By allowing her to become so personally invested in the award to an institution which is the most bitterly fought over by the country’s politicians, Her Majesty’s Government has dragged the monarch into the political murk. Should Nicola Sturgeon seek the royal imprimatur for Scotland’s separate health service, could the Queen refuse the request? What if the London Fire Brigade lets it be known that it too considers itself deserving of recognition for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger”?
The George Cross can now join banging on pots and badly-drawn rainbows in the NHS reliquary. Witnessing this national idolisation of an institution which has neglected its elderly patients to the extent they drank the water from flower vases is as close as we will get in the 21st century to experiencing the mass hysteria which led to the 1212 Children’s Crusade.
Britain does indeed offer world-class healthcare – if voters are prepared to pay extra for it on top of their taxed income. And despite the ongoing fiction that all in Britain are fully committed to what the Prime Minister called “our greatest national asset, the NHS”, an increasing number simply by-pass it.
With 5.1 million currently on the NHS waiting list, a figure that Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, finds “shocking”, more might go down the path of private healthcare. This is of course the option they choose for their pets, minus censorious judgements about “jumping the queue”. They will be joining the estimated five million who already have health insurance, as well as those who happily pay to see a private healthcare practitioner on an ad hoc basis.
Why the taboo surrounding the extensive reach of the private sector into Britain’s healthcare? As the King’s Fund reported in March, “private companies have always played a role in the NHS”. It adds, “identifying NHS spending on the private sector is not straightforward” but suggests that some estimates put it at 25 per cent. (Thanks to the byzantine manner in which NHS GPs are funded, some now include them in the ‘private’ sector.)
Any talk about private healthcare, let alone its involvement in the NHS, prompts foaming-at-the-mouth denunciation from most politicians. Such hysterical over-reaction might be a cue to seek medical help – if only public sector doctors were available. Many NHS GPs shut up shop for the duration of the pandemic: should “Dr No” now deign to be available in person rather than via Zoom, they might give a patient seven minutes – often only to prescribe yet more antibiotics, contributing to the under-reported threat to Britain’s hospitals of antimicrobial resistance.
NHS cultists are dishonest and in denial. If we could afford it, most would leap at the chance of a face-to-face consultation with a private doctor within hours of calling their surgery for an appointment. According to the Association of Dental Groups, one-third of us, including Love Island contestants by the look of things, already visit private dentists. The Queen’s experience of NHS hospitals is surely limited to opening them. King Edward VII’s Hospital, where Matron gives good curtsey, is like a country house hotel off Harley Street.
Last year, following his brush with Coronavirus, the Prime Minister paid effusive tribute both to the NHS and St Thomas’s staff. On its website, the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust openly pitches for private patients, especially from overseas. It promises “exceptional care in a safe, trusted and comfortable environment”. Whether the country’s most famous NHS patient had a view of “iconic London landmarks” from his hospital bed, it is unlikely he would have been given food unfit for a dog, the experience of many up and down the land while under NHS care. Indeed, the PM probably only had to worry about the depth of the pile of the red carpet.
With seven million not coming forward treatment since March last year, including for cancer and heart disease, it is an utter falsehood to claim that the NHS was not overwhelmed during the Covid crisis. Why did it have to requisition private sector capacity? The supreme irony is that the health and wellbeing of a large proportion of our population have been sacrificed to “protect the NHS”. This is a service which chose to discharge elderly Covid-infected patients back into care homes: given the deaths caused, they might as well as have been psychopaths with AK-47s.
Originally published in 1973 by the feminist Boston Women’s Health Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves argued that each individual woman was the best judge when it came to her own health and healthcare choices. Thanks to the worship of the NHS, healthcare choice remains an anathema in Britain in 2021 where politicians remain deaf to any rational discussion about the Service’s huge shortcomings and need for reform.
The collectivist Second World War not only cemented the position of the BBC but led to the creation of the NHS. In our multi-platform digital age, it is no wonder that the national broadcaster funded by compulsory taxation shills for a national health service.
The NHS failed the nation during the pandemic.
By George, it’s past its sell-by date.