The National Health Service (NHS), as the Conservative Party MP Nigel Lawson once quipped, “is the closest thing the English people have to a religion”. For Conservatives, this has long been a source of irritation, standing as an obstacle to privatising the public service. But amid today’s coronavirus pandemic, Lawson’s famous lament has only become more apt – and Boris Johnson’s government is taking full advantage.
The crisis has not only strengthened Britain’s spiritual attachment to the NHS – with donations flooding in, weekly rounds of applause and more than 600,000 volunteers signing up to help. As the government’s response to the crisis is called into question – with over 16,000 deaths already, and forecasts suggesting that Britain will become one of the worst-afflicted countries in Europe – the NHS is also taking on a new, quasi-religious role: as a set of myths or morals that protect those in power from scrutiny.
“We are making progress in this national battle because the British public formed a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset: our national health service,” Johnson said on Sunday, April 12, in his first address to the nation after being released from hospital earlier that day. “We will win because our NHS is the beating heart of this country, it is the best of this country. It is unconquerable. It is powered by love.”
After spending 48 hours in intensive care recovering from the virus, Johnson’s personal sense of gratitude to NHS staff is genuine. “They saved my life, no doubt,” he said. But when such warm words are accompanied by a refusal to acknowledge why Britain is faring so badly compared to other countries in Europe – despite having had more time to prepare than its neighbours – then these solemn tributes start to sound more cynical.
Indeed, as the fatal consequences of Britain’s slow response become clear, combining with a decade of Conservative-imposed austerity, it is now the government using Britain’s attachment to the NHS – according to annual polling, it is the institution that makes Brits most proud of their country – as a “human shield” to deflect from its own failings: an initial complacency that the British could, in Johnson’s words, “take it on the chin”; a lockdown that arrived too late; and a chronic lack of NHS equipment, staff and preparation predating the pandemic.
All this has left the entire population, including NHS staff, exposed. According to the Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK), nearly three-quarters of doctors say they cannot access a mask when they need one, and nearly half of clinicians attending to the highest-risk cases say they cannot access the correct gowns. In one hospital, shortages of gowns forced a team of nurses to wear bin bags instead: all of them contracted the virus. At the time of writing 80 NHS workers have died so far, most of them people of colour.
“We understood and we decided that if together we could keep our NHS safe, if we could stop our NHS from being overwhelmed, then we could not be beaten – and we would rise together,” Johnson declared in his video-message on Easter Sunday. This is now a recurring theme in the government’s narrative: it’s not about the number of deaths, per se, but the “health” of the NHS itself. “At the start of this crisis, people said that the NHS would be overwhelmed,” Matthew Hancock, the Health Secretary, had said on Saturday. “We’ve seen that elsewhere but not here.” The day before, Britain had recorded the highest daily death toll in Europe – and the figure did not include deaths in social care.
Long before the current crisis, the NHS’s place in British politics was shifting. For its first 50 or so years, the institution was Labour’s legacy to lay claim to. The Conservatives – who had voted against its creation 22 times – were either dismissive of it or on the defensive. While Margaret Thatcher proudly declared that she used private healthcare – “I pay my dues [to the NHS],” she said in 1987, “I do not add to the queue” – she still campaigned with an assurance that the NHS was “safe in our hands”.
Since then, however, subsequent Conservative leaders – wearied by Labour’s hat-trick of election wins between 1997 and 2005 – have declared their unbridled devotion to the NHS, claiming the “national religion” as their own. “Tony Blair explained his priorities in three words: education, education, education,” David Cameron said in 2006, during his first Conservative Party conference as leader. “I can do it in three letters: NHS.” Despite a long-running record of duplicity – in the 2010 election, for example, Cameron campaigned to “cut the deficit, not the NHS,” then oversaw the biggest reduction in its funding in real terms ever – the strategy has worked. On most polling, Labour are now no more trusted on health than the Conservatives: the NHS is no longer Labour’s home turf.
Johnson himself has a rich history of this duplicity, not least campaigning for Brexit in 2016 on the false claim that £350 million in EU funding could be redirected to the NHS. Nothing of the sort materialised. And yet, in the public eye, and all the more so after his time in hospital, Johnson has established a greater affinity with the NHS than any of his predecessors.
This is now the third campaign in four years that Johnson has led where the NHS is at the heart of it. Even in the 2019 election, Johnson said he wanted to “Get Brexit Done” so that he could “focus above all on the NHS”. But whether with Brexit, an election or a pandemic, with Johnson at the pulpit, the NHS becomes something less real: a matter of patriotism more than politics, of love and faith more than resources – a “national religion” writ large. Johnson’s “NHS” is a divine, giving thing that can be “overwhelmed” but never “underprepared”. To bring up the 10 years of Conservative austerity – leaving a record shortage of nurses, a record shortage of beds and an exhausted, underpaid staff in its wake – is deemed unpatriotic, even blasphemous. In fact, at the same time as the Conservative government extols the virtues of the NHS, staff themselves are banned from/threatened against sharing negative stories with the press or on social media.
Johnson’s skill is in turning partisan politics into tests of national resolve. By stoking national feeling towards the NHS and then binding his government’s strategy to its “heroic” performance, his government is placed beyond reproach as well. Indeed, with Johnson’s standing all the stronger after his time in hospital, and fanned by an ever-more exuberant press, Johnson himself is now entering a similarly totemic space as the NHS: a man beyond politics and beyond question, a “national treasure,” as his supporters like to call him, whose fate is now tied to another.
“Make no mistake, the health of Boris Johnson is the health of the body politic and, by extension, the health of the nation itself,” Allison Pearson, perhaps his most devoted disciple in the media, wrote in The Daily Telegraph on April 7. “His health is our health,” Pearson went on, “if he can defeat coronavirus, then so can we.” And yet the question of who this “we” accounts for – the question of whether so many more lives will be absent from this “we” because of the government’s slow and blundering response – is judged unimportant, unpatriotic, political point-scoring at a time of crisis. The main thing is that Johnson, like the NHS, carries on the fight: two symbols of a collective survival, regardless of how many lives are lost.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.