One of the problems with the NHS is that it has become a symbol, a slogan, a soundbite.
“Thank you, NHS” appears on estate agents’ boards, contractors’ signs, Twitter handles. People clap on their doorsteps before buying newspapers that fat-shame nurses, and voting for MPs who’ve written pamphlets calling for its privatisation, not directly, but by stealth – handing NHS functions to the profit-hungry companies for whom patient care is anathema.
I had a reminder of what the National Health Service actually means, and why it is so very important, at the weekend.
As I’ve written before, I have disabilities. The stairs in my home have been adapted so that I can manage them with legs that don’t work properly (and one that scarcely works at all) – double bannisters, metal handles etc.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t help me when a foot that flops uselessly slipped, leaving me faced with a horrible split second choice: fall headlong or smash the dead flesh into the bannister to use its presence as a break against said fall.
I’m still here writing this because I chose the latter. Then I started screaming.
After several long and loud ululations punctuated by colourful epithets – I think I could help any thrash metal band in need of a singer – I was helped to an easy chair by my family.
We elevated the suffering appendage, put it on ice, discussed a trip to A&E, decided against it. It hurt like hell, but I have strong pain killers for it anyway, so we decided to see how it went rather than burdening the local hospital, given the pandemic that it’s dealing with.
The next morning, however, saw the foot swelling up and taking on the sort of colour a fast fashion house might find interesting for a really bold design next season. How about Bruise Purple? Guys, I can supply you with photos for a small commission, and you’ll stand out from the crowd, guaranteed.
As a result, my wife and I donned our masks and headed for Whipps Cross Hospital.
This is where the beauty of the NHS as a concept became clear (once more), and the reality of what it is and does behind the useless slogans hit home.
It was pretty quiet – if you must have an accident like mine, now would be a good time – so we didn’t wait long to see a clinician who took down my details, fed them into a computer, found me on the system and gave us a ticket.
At no point was I asked for any insurance details, or a credit card. They just took my personal details. Ain’t “socialised medicine” grand?
A short wait and I was at another window, before being dispatched to minor injuries, where the foot was X-rayed, the problem identified (I’d chipped a bone), advice given (keep it elevated, keep it iced, keep your weight off it), a referral to the fracture clinic made.
Well, a referral to the “virtual” fracture clinic, anyway – the necessity of the pandemic has spawned innovation. A service so often criticised as being lumbering, unwieldy and inefficient (unfairly because it’s actually a pretty effective provider of mass healthcare) is proving to have swifter feet than its critics would have you believe.
I was, at several junctures, asked similar questions to the ones that I was asked by the clinician I first encountered (are you on any medication? Do you have any allergies etc?), but the only money I spent was on the coffee machine.
I needed treatment. It was provided courtesy of the taxes we all pay.
A system that looks at need first, rather than ability to pay, is something that really does deserve applause.
There’s been a lot of talk about patriotism in recent days. The fact that anyone who gets sick can and will eventually be treated in this country is something to be genuinely proud of. It’s rare and precious. It’s worth contrasting with parts of the world where people die from treatable conditions, and injuries like mine don’t get looked at for lack of funds.
Boris Johnson claims the Tories are the party of the NHS. An objective assessment would call that into question. You can start with Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s refusal to fund the pay rise announced for doctors, which will have to come out of the Department of Health’s existing budget.
You can move on through the trade deal being negotiated with the US, where private companies are slathering to get a piece of the action via contracts in which patient care always seems to get sacrificed on the altar of profitability.
You can consider the managerialism and financial engineering that have been allowed to seep into the system, and their failures which end up with hospital trusts running deficit budgets, or worse.
If you, dear reader, suffer a similar fall to the one I suffered, in five or ten years’ time, are you absolutely sure your experience would resemble mine?
I probably will fall again and, no, I can’t be sure that my next experience will resemble the one over the weekend, because I can’t be sure that the NHS is safe in the current government’s hands. And, by the way, where's that £350m a week now we’re not in the EU? Anyone?
The NHS is not a slogan. It is a living, breathing reality, and at the core of it the concept “free at the point of need” remains under threat and is worth fighting for.
My message for those who clapped for it? Roll up your sleeves. There is work to do.