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Angela Tilby: The NHS is not a religion

02 October 2020


JUST after the beginning of the lockdown, the sociologist of religion Professor Linda Woodhead wrote a brief article for the Religion Media Centre website about British religion. “When faced with a biblical plague, the British turn not to God but to the National Health Service. It is here, rather than in our national churches, that we affirm our shared values, reinforce a sense of collective identity, deal with evil and suffering, reaffirm hope.” She identified the religious origins of the NHS “in the brave new world of welfare utopianism ushered in by the second world war”.

While most of us remain committed to the founding ideal of free health care for all, there are questions to be asked about our much loved NHS — not least, whether our reverence for it has not made it difficult to see it objectively. Friends living in Europe with different, but often more efficient and more effective, health-care systems find our emotional attachment to the NHS puzzling.

But, then, if it is truly a religion, it becomes difficult to question. Our faith sustains us where reason fails. We have become so paranoid at fears of the “selling-off” of “our” NHS that we are blind to the structural and logistical faults that business brains could help to solve.

During the early stages of the pandemic, most frontline nurses, doctors, and carers behaved with sacrificial diligence. Some suffered trauma, illness, “moral injury”, and even death. Around them, chaos broke out. Many GPs’ practices shut up shop and have since conducted primary consultations only by phone or online. Cancer patients were left without diagnosis and treatment. Elderly “bed-blockers” were discharged without testing, to bring death and suffering to care homes. Testing failed. Some of the NHS’s vast army of administrators felt the pain, but many have been energised by the chance to “rationalise”, pushing changes that they judged overdue.

The problem has been a lack of joined-up thinking in all of this. It is not only the Government’s fault. The sprawling NHS bureaucracy fights against itself; the local clashes with the national; there is overlap, rivalry, and a persistent culture of blame.

We should consider whether some of this is our fault. I was horrified when the Church had so little to say about life, death, and God at the start of the pandemic, as though the most important thing was to bow to the superior religion that took its place 70 years ago. But the NHS is not a religion. It is a health-care system that scores badly compared with many others. It has no mystical essence. It cannot solve all our problems. There is a need for hard thinking about how the NHS is to be funded and organised, and what it is reasonable to expect of it. Sentimental obeisance does not help.

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