Prudence Dailey’s Commentary: The National Health Service: A Secular Religion?

Prudence Dailey’s Commentary

The National Health Service: A Secular Religion?

I was absent from the previous issue’s columns following a brush with the National Health Service, having injured my right forearm on a protruding door handle whilst dashing for the phone at my mother’s house. I won’t go into too much grisly detail of this freak accident, save to say that the handle penetrated my arm a fair way, resulting in a lot of blood and eight stitches.

Thanks be to God, I am not in anyway debilitated and have had a lot less pain than might be anticipated, so I consider that I have been very lucky. I am grateful for the prayers of my friends, as well as for the ministrations of the NHS—which I have seen at its best and its worst. On the one hand, the hospital staff were all kind, attentive and efficient, and did a good job of fixing me up and making sure I was comfortable. I came away with the impression that these members of the caring professions were motivated by a genuine desire to do good in the world; I also noticed that one of them—a male nurse—was wearing a gold cross around his neck (and had apparently not been persecuted for doing so, unlike Nurse Mary Onuoha who recently won in an employment tribunal against her former employer).

Other things, however, were not so good, including the fact that I was told I might have to wait up to nine hours for an ambulance. Instead, I got a taxi–and then another taxi, as I needed to be transferred from the Westmoreland General in Kendal to the Royal Lancaster Infirmary. All told, I racked up almost £100 in fares: fortunately, I can afford £100, but what about those who can’t? Or those who, like the father of an acquaintance, too frail for any other form of transport, recently had to hang on for eight hours for an ambulance whilst suffering from septicaemia? Fortunately, he survived—but he might very easily not have done so. Then there is my GP surgery, the difficulties with which I shall not recount, except to say that by the time you can even get to speak to someone on the telephone, you are almost certainly either better or dead.

This is the NHS: like the little girl in Longfellow’s poem, when it is good, it is very, very good; but when it is bad, it is horrid. We should not, I suppose, be surprised that a large and unwieldy human institution sometimes has significant problems. The trouble is, however, that the NHS has effectively become a contemporary secular religion: there is a meme going around on social media depicting a golden calf with ‘NHS’ inscribed upon it.

From nurses dancing around hospital beds in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, to the weekly lockdown ritual of standing on doorsteps clapping for the NHS, this important but flawed institution is increasingly deified in modern Britain. At the peak of the pandemic, we were urged to ‘Save the NHS!’ Wasn’t it supposed to be there to save us?

But of course, in the end, it cannot save us—only Christ can do that. As society increasingly loses touch with its Christian foundations, the man’s intrinsic yearning for some other fount of goodness, some other sacred entity into which to put his trust, seeks an alternative outlet. There is, however, but one God—and He is not the National Health Service.