In the first Prime Minister’s address given since his discharge from St Thomas’ Hospital, London, Boris Johnson announced, with misplaced pride and spectacle, that the NHS is “powered by love”. At first glance this appears to be a harmless truth, in fact, one which seems almost indisputable. Certainly, all who have received care and guidance from the NHS will testify to the huge amount of love and compassion which emanates from those who work within it. But to argue that it is love, in the midst of a gruelling global pandemic, that keeps our hospitals running, is a desperately sad thought. To say as much, is to reveal a chilling truth; that years of merciless Tory austerity has burnt out our NHS leaving it, at our time of greatest need, running on precious embers of goodwill.
In a country who so loves its public health service (despite often voting to the contrary) it appears that goodwill is in no short supply. Johnson’s announcement follows weeks of fanatical public interest in war veteran Captain Tom Moore who, in gallantly walking 100 lengths of his back garden in Bedfordshire has, at the time of writing, raised £32 million for NHS Charites Together. This is no small feat. Rather it is a heroic action, which has rightly generated significant love and affection from the British public. But our gratitude is empty if not accompanied by overwhelming shame. Shame at the videos glorified across social media of an elderly man crossing back and forth his garden, with the aid of a walking frame and wearing the medals awarded for his service in World War II.
A man who sacrificed the end of his youth for this country, once again serving it at a point of partly preventable crisis. In his pre-recorded message of thanks to celebrate Captain Moore’s 100th Birthday, Johnson lauded that “you [Tom] have created a channel to enable millions to say a heartfelt thank you to the remarkable men and women in our NHS”. From a man, who in line with his party and government, has continuously voted for policies that create devastating restrictions to health and welfare services, the hypocrisy of this crass assertion is blinding. The NHS is not a charity. Whilst, in our immediate future, it cannot be denied that money raised is crucial for providing adequate protection and facilitating the needs of frontline workers, this is not a service which should rely on charity. Johnson’s statement however, demonstrates a moulding, a snide twisting and perfecting of an attitude towards the NHS which will protect the government and their policies (of past and present) from receiving just blame. He is covering years of neglect with a rose-tinted, morale boosting show of public unity, which is reducing the image of our NHS to a charitable body. What Johnson neglects, is that these millions of “thank yous” are actually millions of pounds which have been promised to help – not merely thank – an NHS crippled by years of Conservative underfunding.
The NHS has been at crisis point for a long time. Indeed, when Johnson went on to thank the British public for forming a “human shield around this country’s greatest asset” he did an unforgivable disservice to those who have thanklessly plugged the crumbling walls of the NHS for years. Junior doctors, who have worked horrendous hours without proper pay or rest. Student nurses, striding into huge debts to be by our bedsides. Administrative staff, who have plugged away at ward sheets day and night to reconfigure and reconfigure again the number of beds available. Paramedics, anaesthetics, surgeons, pharmacists, caterers, clerks and cleaners. Immigrant workers, who jump through hurdle after hurdle, only to be denounced by our Home Office as ‘low-skilled’, all whilst providing life saving services. A human shield has been protecting our NHS for far too long, and it is time that political changes take over.
Certainly, extraordinary times have called for extraordinary measures. It is the responsibility of all of us to adhere to social distancing, to do our bit to protect these vital services. But we must not forget that when this crisis eases, when we can slowly trickle back to our own normality, that unless we challenge the policies of our government, it is those who are working the hardest for us now who will be left holding up these broken walls.
Already, government ministers are declaring triumphantly that our NHS has not been overwhelmed by this virus. Or, more accurately, that it has not been more overwhelmed than normal. Whilst we must commend the remarkable sacrifice and incredible hard work of frontline workers, we owe it to them that their bravery does not become a sweeping rhetoric for the Tories to wield over the NHS in our post-pandemic future. Our government has made grave mistakes, botching crucial decisions and missing valuable opportunities to slow the spread of this virus. They ignored warnings from countries ahead of us, failed to increase testing capacity and are still unable to provide enough PPE supplies. They have pushed our health service to its knees, leaving it ill-equipped for a crisis of such a scale.
The NHS was founded on the revolutionary idea that healthcare is the responsibility of the state. And oh, how our state has let us down. Love is not always enough. Alone, it cannot keep a hospital running, nor should it ever have to. Because frankly, no country could bear that great an emotional burden forever and if we don’t begin fighting for change now, it will cripple our health service for good.
Image: Sam Saunders via Flickr