The NHS is a national religion, why aren't we looking after it?

Staff on an NHS hospital ward.

Staff on an NHS hospital ward. - Credit: PA

Nigel Lawson once said “the NHS is the closest thing the English people have now to a religion”. 

A comment on the secularisation of society, yes, but also an astute observation of just how loved the National Health Service is. 

So loved, in part, because it permeates every aspect of life in this country. 

The NHS is the “cradle-to-grave" social programme envisaged by William Beveridge – its spiritual father. Most of us were born in its care, and most of us will die in its care. 

It is also the largest employer in Europe, employing one in 25 working-age adults in the country.  

But it also reaches into our living rooms via the TV. 

In the finale of long-running medical soap Holby City, stricken but steely heart surgeon Jac Naylor closed the show out with a monologue on what it means.  

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She said: “This is what the NHS means to us. Not a badge on a cabinet minister’s lapel. Not a number down the side of a bus … it’s all of us doing the best we can in impossible circumstances.”  

Similarly, the BBC comedy-drama This Is Going To Hurt – a dramatisation of a former junior doctor’s memoir – highlighted the peeling surroundings, under-staffing and crushing pressure of a labour ward. 

A TV drama it may have been, but it seems to have been fairly close to the mark. 

Earlier this week the Ockenden review was released after five years of painstaking investigation into maternity services at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. 

The inquiry examined 1,592 incidents that involved 1,486 families between 2000 and 2019.  

Donna Ockenden’s review found “repeated errors in care” led to injury to either mothers or their babies. Some 201 babies could have – or would have – survived if the trust had provided better care. 

Some babies suffered skull fractures, broken bones or developed cerebral palsy after traumatic forceps deliveries. Others were starved of oxygen and experienced life-changing brain injuries. 

Several mothers were made to have natural births despite the fact they should have been offered a Caesarean. 

Off the back of the report being published, police detectives are examining 600 incidents to decide whether there are criminal cases to answer. 

To prevent further tragedies, the review identified 15 “immediate and essential actions which must be implemented by all trusts in England providing maternity services”. 

Among these are issues such as workforce funding, planning and sustainability, safe staffing, escalation and accountability, leadership, investigations of incidents and complaint handling, and learning from the deaths of mothers. 

Sadly, Shrewsbury is not alone in having problems with its maternity services. In recent years issues have been revealed at Morecambe Bay, East Kent and Nottingham hospitals. 

Ms Ockenden said it is absolutely clear that there is an urgent need for a robust and funded England-wide maternity workforce plan starting right now, without delay, and continuing over multiple years. 

"The reasons for these failures are clear," she said. "There were not enough staff, there was a lack of ongoing training, there was a lack of effective investigation and governance at the trust and a culture of not listening to the families involved." 

According to a recent NHS Survey, just 12.5%-23.4% of nurses and midwives in Norfolk, depending on where they work, thought their workplace had enough staff for them to do their jobs properly. 

In Suffolk, the figures ranged between 16.6% and 20.5%. 

NHS stats show that at the end of 2021 there were 3,792 vacancies for registered nurses in the East of England. 

That’s more nurses and midwives than work at two good-sized hospitals. 

And that's a problem. 

Nigella’s dad, once lauded for his performance as chancellor but now prone to climate change denial, was right when he said the NHS is venerated. And so it should be. 

The Ockenden review, the survey results and the warnings in popular culture should remind us of this, and spur us on to save it.