The NHS is 72 years old today. Some of you may remember it starting; most of us won’t. We’ve grown up with it; it is part of how we think society should function. Free at the point of delivery, it is the basic assumption of our society that we care for one another, that we all contribute and in this great pooling everyone is cared for; that it is there for us when we need it. Like many of us I benefit enormously from the NHS. It is hard to imagine life in this country without it.
This is not the assumption of every country in the world and we saw this with the response in America to Barack Obama’s health care. I looked on with wide-eyed bemusement at the vitriol poured on him for this and the contempt some held it in. Why would anyone not want a health service like we have?
The fact that it is 72 years old today means, of course, that there was a time when we didn’t assume that this was how it should be. It had to be invented and that journey had its bumps. It was part of a reimagining of what life would be like, needed to be like, post war, the product of a Commission on Social Insurance and Allied Services chaired by William Beveridge. This reported in 1942 and proposed far-reaching reforms of the existing social welfare provisions.
It aimed to address what it called the five giants on the road to reconstruction of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness; to provide rewards for everyone’s sacrifices. There had been previous attempts with a 1908 Commission on the Poor Law. Attlee’s government picked this up in 1945 and the NHS was launched on 5th July 1948 with three core principles:
- that it meets the needs of everyone
- that it is free at the point of delivery and
- that treatment is based on clinical need, not on the ability to pay.
The first of those principles, meeting the needs of everyone, is a very different prospect today, with medical science able to do far more than was envisaged in 1948. So, as expectations have risen, Clinical Commissioning Groups have hard decisions to match budget to medical need.
What we have seen over recent months has been just how dedicated those who work on the frontline of this service are. It is self-sacrificial, loving and deeply inspiring. But it is under significant strain and has been for years. Those of us who see it in action, be it as a patient, healthcare professional or visitor, know just how much it struggles to cope. Covid piled on stress to an already over stretched organisation.
Our readings this morning had a thread running through them of mutual care. In a desert country, providing water and hospitality to the stranger – to meet the human need – is a fundamental ethic. It’s an environment where everyone knows that they rely on one another for survival. So Rebekah’s kindness to the traveller (Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49) shows she is someone who behaves well, as expected and is a person of peace, rather than strife. We have seen with Covid that not everyone can be relied on and there are scammers and those who would take advantage of a vulnerable situation.
The darkness of not always doing what I want, but something destructive getting the better of us, was in Paul’s reflection in the New Testament reading (Romans 7:15-25a). It is in and through God’s love within that we will find a more gracious way to be. The ethic at work, again, is that there is an expectation to match up. With his mind being on the law of God and his actions a slave to sin, Paul is calling for an integration, to be genuine and authentic.
And then in Matthew (11:16-19), John the Baptist points out the hypocrisy of failing to match up again. ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deed’. So put it into practice. Jesus follows this with his call for all who are weighed down to ‘come to him’ and find in him the rest and care they long for (11: 25-end).
The clapping for the NHS has attracted mixed responses, not least from the medical profession. Some have been deeply moved by the show of support and respect from people in their streets. Others have said don’t clap and then behave in a way that treats us with contempt. Sharp words for policy makers, funding allocators, and users of the service who risk spikes and risk one another.
So as we celebrate the NHS, we celebrate the ethic on which it is built, that of mutual support and care, of pooling resources so that all may benefit, not least in a hostile environment and a time of great threat. It calls on us to match words to actions, to join up the dots. It also calls on us to celebrate those who give so selflessly of themselves and for the benefit of strangers who stop by at their spring in need – the Rebekahs and others in blue.
Sermon celebrating 72nd Birthday of the NHS, Live-stream service, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 5th July 2020.