There are few things that make me rally to the patriotic cause these days. Royal weddings, foreign wars of adventure, a grasping banking system and less-than admirable England footballers who kiss the badge are more likely to make me run for the hills rather than run up a red, white and blue flag. But in such cynical, often dispiriting times there is at least one thing that still makes me genuinely proud to be British.
It’s not an individual, a date from history, or an exercise in preening national vanity. It is, of all, things, an institution. And it’s one I want to make sure is protected and improved.
The National Health Service is something to be genuinely proud of. It’s at times when you really need it that you are reminded what a wonderful organisation it really is. And as a parent, rarely can I have felt a more acute need when it’s my own child who is in need of urgent medical attention.
I’m not one for parading every detail of my family’s life for all to gawp at over the internet, but in this instance I feel some reference is relevant. A few weeks ago, the NHS stepped in to preserve the health of our four-year-old daughter. If that sounds a mite melodramatic, it should be noted that she was suffering from a ruptured appendix.
This curious evolutionary relic had made her very ill and was threatening worse. Had her condition not been spotted by a brilliant and attentive GP, had she not been rushed to a modern, superbly equipped local children’s hospital, staffed by equally brilliant people who knew their job and rushed her into theatre – well, it doesn’t really bear thinking about.
She’s now home and recovering well and for that, we are in debt to the NHS. I was all set to write about this particular experience when medical matters intervened once more. Shortly after her return home I was the one left feeling groggy as I came round from a general anaesthetic. I’d been taken into the same hospital complex for an emergency op on my eye, due to a detached retina.
Once again the NHS stepped in saved the day; without wishing to sound too melodramatic, they saved my sight. Prompt diagnosis, swift action and the best possible surgery and post-op care enabled me to soon be back at home feeling slightly bewildered by it all but once again immensely grateful. It hurts like hell, I can’t see properly and outpatient appointment and care is required for the foreseeable future, but yet again the NHS came to our rescue.
As a family we’re lucky. Fortunate that we have such dedicated professionals working in our area and privileged that the state-of-the-art facilities are within easy reach. Most of all we’re fortunate that we live in a society that places a value on the care and well being of everyone, wherever they live, regardless of their ability to pay at the point of delivery.
At least we do for now. The proposed reforms to the NHS are a threat to its essential purpose. Note that sly use of the progressive sounding ‘reform’ rather than the more honest and regressive ‘cutback’ in public-sector provision. Because that is what it means: throwing a publicly funded service open to the free market to a greater extent than before, placing a premium on quality of care and, that dread phrase, applying ‘market forces’.
This isn’t new – New Labour was similarly culpable in its messing with the basic principles of the NHS, and the whole service was indeed founded as a compromise. Neither should it be claimed that funding and managing such a huge and often unwieldy body as the NHS is easy. But the current plans put the service in real jeopardy.
The NHS has been good, by and large, to my family, my friends and their families. Succeeding generations have been brought into the world, and some have left it via the NHS as well. In the interim many of us have been treated for various illnesses and ailments of varying seriousness – not always with the best outcomes. To suggest the NHS is perfect is a plain wrong. It does require genuine reform, together with new investment and support. Where there is proven waste, poor service, and needless bureaucracy that has a real impact on care, by all means changes for the better should be made. But not with this half-baked handover to those with an eye on profit at the expense of the taxpayer.
I spoke recently to a health professional who had to lay off 50 staff as part of a cost-cutting measure. She said she had gone into the service to provide care and make people better, not to make people redundant. Worse, there’s more to come. At a time when those must vulnerable in our society deserve public service as a fundamental right, the corporate carve up threatens the basic principle of universal healthcare.
To return to my own experience, it’s worth considering what the prospects for my family would be if we had to use a private insurance scheme on American lines. I wonder how my daughter’s premiums would be affected in adulthood with a cross marked ‘had an operation’ on her application form? Would I be able to get adequate cover given the ‘history’ my eye op now entails? Supporters of the government plan would no doubt say I’m scaremongering – but Andrew Lansley’s plans are the thin end of a wedge that could quite feasibly thicken and raise the spectre of a situation where decent medical care is reserved for those who can afford it.
Who loves the NHS? I do. It’s not perfect, it can frequently frustrate and occasionally enrage. But it’s something to be properly proud of – and we all lose it at our peril.