NHS Workers: The New Priesthood

Nigel Lawson, one of Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellors, famously remarked that “the NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion”. Amusing and yet tragic. Recent years- and weeks- have demonstrated the truth of Lawson’s claim. For the health service’s 70th anniversary, Owen Sheers composed a poem, in which he described it as “the most radical and beautiful idea we’ve ever realised”. Poly Toynbee, the ultimate Guardianista, described the piece as “a psalm to humanity, to life and death, survival and tragedy, care and peril”.

At election time, Labour politicians wheel out the oft-repeated refrain that the electorate has only 4 weeks, 5 days, 24 hours (or however long is left till election day) to ‘save the NHS’. Even Lawson’s boss didn’t dare privatise the health service, so passionate would have been the outrage. We are often told the NHS is the ’envy of the world’, as though other nations don’t bother with healthcare, or that the French and Germans insist on handing their poor hefty hospital bills. No, we think our religion superior to that of other cultures’ and nations’. As Mr Bevan, the post-war Health Minister and NHS founder prophesied “the NHS will last as long as there’s folk with faith left to fight for it.” Amen, brother.

If the NHS is godless Britain’s state religion, the last month has turned it from a respectable faith to an obsessive cult. Firstly, let me offer the usual disclaimer and attempt to fend off angry emails. I’m grateful for the system of health care we have and I am glad of its staff’s dedication. Yet levels of affection and gratitude have swelled into a kind of fanaticism. Companies have taken to the airwaves and social media to thank ‘NHS workers’ for all they do, offering them a special discount or favourable opening hours. ‘Thankyou NHS,’ posters have appeared in people’s living room windows and online profiles. The health service, you see, is our sure defence against the foreign peril, this fifth column of illness stalking our land. Its staff are the frontline troops, courageously battling the bug, that we on the home front might be spared atrocity.

A number of doctors have tragically died from the virus, including some who were born abroad. The BBC headlined the article ‘Coming 5000 miles to die for the NHS’. Eh? One might argue they died doing their jobs, even for the sake of their patients, but did they die for a peculiarly British healthcare funding formula? It goes on to say they ‘left behind friends and relatives back home to dedicate their careers to the UK's health service’. Note the religious overtones here. They didn’t leave behind friends and family because British doctors are better remunerated than their Sudanese colleagues. Neither did they prefer to work in a stable nation, enjoying the rule of law, allowing civil freedoms. No sir, they felt the NHS tugging at their hearts. A light shone in their darkness as they realised that the British National Health Service gave them the meaning and fulfilment they always sought. And now they’ve died for the cause, the cult has two more martyrs. I do not in any way disparage these two Sudanese physicians, but neither do I swallow the guff that they died for anything other being dedicated professionals.

In the meantime, I’ve received a number of requests to contribute towards fundraisers ‘for our NHS staff’. What the money will buy I do not know; I always assumed healthcare staff were paid by the state, that’s the NHS’ USP. I’ve been invited to join another group: Fighting for our NHS. As it fights for us, so we can do our part and fight for it. The enemy’s identity is not clear, but it’s presumably wicked Tory and New Labour politicians, or Donald Trump, who want to ‘privatise it’, destroying it forever. A number of NHS staff I know have uploaded pictures of themselves wearing their work uniforms- blue scrubs or white tunics- to better reinforce their priestly status. Beneath the pictures are helpful mantras such ‘Stay at home for us’ and ‘Support our frontline staff’. Again, I offer no disparagement here. People should take pride in their work and healthcare is a noble profession, from the lowest paid hospital cleaner and carer to the most experienced senior consultant. Yet all this is adding to the institution’s cult-like status.

There are distinct parallels between the NHS and the pre-reformation church. Then we had a range of figures in religious garb- monks, priests, nuns, friars- guarding us against evil, protecting us from harm. At birth, life and death they were there for us, keeping us safe at the most dangerous times. Although there was a feeling that those at the top, such as bishops, cardinals and popes, were over-paid and not always the most efficient administrators, there was real affection for their lower paid colleagues whose paths folk were more likely to cross. Although some grumbled at the system and the tithes levied to pay for it, woe betide any who dared criticise the organisation or its life-giving practices. Heretics were unacceptable on a number of levels.

Today’s priesthood of doctors, nurses, managers and others fulfil many of the functions of the old Church. The NHS makes no claims regarding the afterlife, which neatly reflects godless Britain’s materialism. These people in gowns and tunics, with their special knowledge and long words are people we have learned to trust and depend upon. Hospitals are the great cathedrals of our age, the GPs’ surgery our parish churches. From cradle to grave, these skilled professionals tend to our needs and keep us alive.

Sadly, each one of us is more than a body, a pumping heart, a bag of nerves. We have an immortal soul which women and men in blue scrubs can neither save nor assist. NHS staff can help us face cancers, diseases, injuries and deformities, but heaven they cannot procure. Only Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, can cure a damaged, dying soul:

 “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

Mark 2:17

I’m glad of our healthcare system in Britain and I salute its staff. But the cult-like affection many have developed for it is a dangerous substitute for spirituality. When one evicts God from one’s affections, the vacant space will be filled with other things. Some, like the NHS, are essentially good, but they can never truly satisfy our spiritual longings, our lives beyond the mortuary.