The NHS is, rather ironically, an institution in a state of serious ill-health. This should be evident to anyone who has spent time visiting loved ones in hospitals at any point in years gone by, but the true extent of the damage and instability of the institution has been laid bare by the coronavirus outbreak.
The health budget in this country is enormous, standing at nearly £150 billion. This is a mind-boggling amount of money – it constitutes over twenty per cent of all public sector expenditure. To give this number some context, education received only £44 billion in the fiscal year of 2019 – less than defence. Not that this is enough dosh, it seems, hence why we have 99-year-olds rushing around their garden to raise money for the monolith, rather than sitting down and enjoying a well-deserved cup of tea.
Not many, however, complain about this. The NHS is, by and large, a popular thing. Certainly, the idea of an institution that provides free health care at the point of need is popular – even if the way that it is implemented may prove to be less favoured by some free-marketeers.
This is why so many people are proud of our NHS – YouGov found that a whopping 87% were either very or fairly proud of our health service, second-only to the fire brigade. And people are especially proud of those who work for the service - and it is for this reason why millions have been taking to their doorsteps every Thursday night to join in the ‘Clap for Carers’ craze which has started up in recent weeks.
There is nothing wrong with this course of action – it is, in principle, a highly commendable and respectable thing to do. The problem with it is that it risks further pushing the NHS into a state of existence where it cannot be criticised or commented on without facing a public backlash.
This has been the case for some time, albeit not to the extent that we have seen in recent weeks. I recently had to explain to an international student friend of mine why the NHS is such a political hot potato. On the one hand, the left see it as their creation and therefore feel the need to protect it at all costs. On the other, the right know that they cannot mention ‘health service’ and ‘privatisation’ in the same sentence without a huge media backlash which will see their working-class voters, who were so important to their 2019 general election win, abandon them in an instant.
We have already seen people lambasted for defying groupthink and not joining in with this clapping craze. This is the ugly truth of the movement. Whilst many of its adherents and supporters are well-meaning, ordinary members of the public, its core message is this: you should publicly and vocally express your support for the current NHS, without criticism, on a regular basis, or expect to face criticism.
This is a shocking state of affairs. It exists for no other public institution. Many have and do criticise the police, our defence agencies, and many others. Yet not so when it comes to the sacred cow of our National Health Service. And do not be fooled, for there is plenty to criticise here.
For example, one need only glance at how the business side of things are run to see a woeful and wanton disregard for savvy spending. A famous example is paracetamol – 30-odd pence to you and me in every supermarket up and down the country, but costing the NHS ten times the price. Such flagrant and obvious poor leadership should be open to scathing attack – and yet condemnation of the NHS at any level is seen by many as an attack on the whole.
There is an uncomfortable fact that we must wake up to. The NHS was not built to work for a population nearing 70 million. Our ageing and increasing populous means that NHS funding needs to rise 3.3% every year (roughly £5 billon) for the next fifteen years simply to maintain itself – and what good is ‘maintaining itself’ if the current system provides three week waits to see a doctor? The ills of the health service cannot be solved with plasters of fifty pound notes.
And this is the danger that movements like ‘Clap for Carers’ brings with them, however well-meaning they are. The whole thing reminds me of the end of Blackadder Goes Forth – we know we are striding towards the end, but continue to act as if all is well, as it is the ‘proper’ thing to do.
We must be free to break away from this groupthink mentality. We must call out and criticise institutions without fear of being berated by our fellow electorate. Most importantly, we must realise that the NHS is not fit for purpose, and cannot continue to have money shovelled into the furnaces to be burnt up by ineptitude and poor organisation. However much we may love out health service, we must appreciate that no amount of clapping can save it.