I was born in the Manchester Royal Infirmary, and spent my childhood in the shadow of its massive chimney. My mum, nana and aunties all worked there, and long hours sitting in Main Reception with a bottle of Oasis or hiding under the ward clerks’ desks in ante-natal fill the memories of my childhood. When I got mud in my eye at school, when I split my head open at work, when I got jumped on Hathersage Road, it patched me up again and sent me on my way, grumbling but no worse.
When the people you most care about work in the same place, and when that’s the place that makes you better, it stays with you. It has also, perhaps, given me a bias towards the back-office staff, and a scepticism towards the holiness of doctors (too many stories about discarded latex in the tea-room). But at the heart of it is the basic tenet of the National Health Service. Whether you’re royalty, or a lad from Longsight, you come here and we make you better. My mum, nana, the desks, the computers, that massive chimney that dominated the skyline of my childhood, it was all there to make people, any people, better.
The time before that idea is swiftly becoming history, but people still have a feeling from parents, grand-parents, even great-grandparents. A time when help when you were hurting was not a right, but a privilege, to be doled out in return for money, or in little bits as charity. As a child I could never grasp that there was a time when you couldn’t just go and get better. As an adult, I can’t grasp why some people would want to take that away.
The 2010 Commonwealth survey shows I’m not alone. Despite ranking in the bottom two in both spending per capita and spending as a percentage of GDP, UK citizens are the most confident of any of the eleven nations surveyed that they will get the “most-effective treatment, including drugs and diagnostic tests”. They’re also the most confident they’ll be able to afford care, have the lowest out of pocket expenses, are the least likely to skip a prescription because of costs, and are the least likely group to judge care to be inefficient. To be blunt, the NHS spends the least, covers the people other healthcare systems scare away with up-front fees, and its users still have more confidence in it than any other country’s citizens do in their health system.
Now, perhaps we’re all suffering from a collective hallucination. Maybe Americans, Germans and Norwegians have higher standards, or are more cynical, or just more likely to complain. Yet the NHS bears the depression rates of Scandinavia, the alcohol consumption of central Europe and the obesity statistics of the United States with less money than any of them. It is a daily marvel that the entire thing keeps going, a testament to hundreds of thousands of people who go above and beyond the call of duty when no-one’s watching.
The NHS is the great testament to the underlying goodness of people of this country, and our precious inheritance. The elderly people on geriatric wards bequeath it to the babies in maternity. It is ours, not the government’s, and not Mr Lansley’s. He meddles at his peril.