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Happy Birthday, dear NHS


Yesterday the 70th birthday of the National Health Service was celebrated in an act of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey, in the presence of the Countess of Wessex. The NHS was founded to be ‘free at the point of delivery on the basis of need’. Many Brits would share my view that, in spite of its many and evident faults, it is an outstanding feature of our society. It makes world-class care available to everyone…who is prepared to wait a little.

I had scarcely been near a hospital as a patient until about ten years ago. More recently my visits have been a bit more frequent – my body is showing signs of wear and tear! I have found the people who have treated me - from the top consultant to the most junior members of staff and their administrative back-up teams – unfailingly kind, attentive and patient. I have much to thank them for.

As I thought about this, my mind settled on the word ‘service’. In what other contexts do we use the word? Servicing the car. Military service. Serving the ball into play at Wimbledon. Customer service. In the plural, motorway services. These are all fairly functional activities.

But perhaps the most common usage of the word is in the phrase ‘self-service’ – not invented when the NHS began. So much of our lives today is based on a self-service principle. In fact there is much pressure to live a self-service life. You can fill your car with petrol, fill your trolley with groceries, fill your wallet with notes without the inconvenience of engaging with another human being. Of course, self-service streamlines commercial activities and so reduces costs for everyone. You can order your life at your own convenience.

It is unfortunate that the NHS shares the word ‘service’ with other common activities. Most of the people working in the NHS, it seems to me, do so, in part at least, because they want to be there for other human beings in time of need. Even if there is a cost to themselves. They want to offer their gifts, however specialized or simple they may be, for the well-being of the community. Working in the NHS is not an easy option. For most employees it is very demanding. A very determined young relative of mine once said to me ‘I don’t know exactly what I want to do but I do know that I will work in a hospital’.

The architect of the NHS, the Labour politician Aneurin Bevin, said some years after it began: ‘I’m proud of the NHS. It’s a piece of real socialism. It’s a piece of real Christianity too’. Those words were printed in the progamme for yesterday’s service in the Abbey.

Helen and I have often advised newlyweds ‘Plan to make your marriage is about something bigger than yourselves’. We’re finding that advice just as relevant in retirement. Francis of Assisi, echoing the spirit of Jesus, famously said: ‘For it is giving that we receive…it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life’.


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