The NHS. The team uniting a nation.

The painful Brexit debate has sharply polarised the UK public in recent years, but that is changing. According to YouGov in March, 59% of UK adults believe we are closer together Vs 11% feeling more divided.

The common enemy of Covid-19 will explain some of our growing togetherness. But our shared admiration and support for NHS workers is likely to account for much more of the healing.

Anenurin Bevan, Minister of Health, on the first day of the NHS, 5 July 1948 at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, near Manchester” by liverpoolhls is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Launched in 1948, our favourite institution is facing its biggest challenge with a pandemic that demands unprecedented intensive care support and NHS carers exposed to a high risk of infection, with their supply of protective equipment, at the very least, patchy.

The public response is also unprecedented. UK households are, literally, applauding NHS carers. Children are displaying their ‘thank you’ rainbow posters in windows. British brands such as Burberry, Dyson, McLaren and Rolls Royce have become interim NHS medical suppliers and other less directly ‘productive’ brands are displaying their gratitude with free food and services for NHS carers.

NHS workers have, in prose, been promoted to angels or heroes reflecting their live-saving status. Sadly, in real life masks are not always available and bullets don’t always bounce off.

What is noteworthy is that the NHS is not just providing medical help for those in need. Support for the NHS has become a unifying cause and outlet for UK societal purpose. 750,000 have signed-up to be NHS volunteers, many (including the remarkable Captain Tom Moore) are fundraising and communities are reconnected with their weekly doorstep clap for carers.

Nigel Lawson’s 1980’s assessment that the NHS is “the closest thing the English people have to a religion” has never been more insightful or important. Shared commitment to protecting NHS workers contributes to an increasingly difficult adherence to social isolation measures.

Observing behaviour today it is difficult to believe our NHS dependency will not permanently raise the status of carers and the expectations of our health service in a post-pandemic UK that is led by a Prime Minister who has admitted “I owe doctors and nurses my life.”

The ExCel convention centre in east London was converted into NHS Nightingale with capacity for up to 4,000 patients.

The nine days taken to ‘build’ the London Nightingale hospital, the £13 billion NHS debt write-off, the dramatic increase in video doctor appointments and (eventual) introduction of testing centres throws past assumptions on speed of progress and affordability out of the window.

A post-pandemic economy will cast a shadow, but comparisons with countries such as Germany will surely amplify the consequences of NHS under-funding in hospitals and low attention on social care. A look at the US experience is likely to highlight limitations of profit driven decision-making, and vindicate the NHS “universal access for free” principle.

In judging the consequences of today’s unifying need for the NHS we shouldn’t overlook the catalyst behind its introduction in 1948. It was World War II that triggered government control of voluntary and municipal hospitals to treat civilian casualties from bombing. It enabled mass access to free and expert medical care. It was within this context that the pioneering, revolutionary concept of the NHS gained public, political and medical profession acceptance.

As in the 1940s, even the most ambitious vision, investment or plan for the NHS will look far from revolutionary when normality emerges.

A grateful, perhaps now ‘evangelical’ Boris Johnson may recognise the opportunity. A nation divided again by an inequitable economic fall-out will appreciate it and those caring today will deserve it.

This rainbow poster by Jessica is one of many created by Woodbridge Primary school

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