Saturday 16th May 2020

The NHS has become the UK’s new religion. Regular weekly excursions are made beyond the front door to give thanks and offer a prayer of protection on a Thursday evening.  Symbols are placed in windows, young children taught about angels and saints. Religious artefacts, painted stones, social media memes and radio announcements reflect the adoration of the medical profession  in our current Covid society. So what is behind the sudden  deification of our healthcare providers?

To look at this simply, on the surface it would appear to be little more than some kind of advanced insurance policy – clap for the NHS and have first dibs on the ventilator when the time comes. But this logic doesn’t hold much weight as at least 40% of those clapping voted for the party who, for ten years systematically ran down the NHS until its figures – for ventilators, cancers and deaths sat at the bottom of the rather large European league table.

Maybe it’s an apology clap? Sorry for voting against you, for leaving so little in the coffers to look after us now that we are helpless and cannot use our money to prevent our infection? Somehow I doubt that. The British electorate are unusually coy when it comes to admitting who they voted for, and have goldfish memories where voter responsibility is concerned. 

So what is it that makes the  NHS the new religion?

To answer that we need to remind ourselves of the meaning and function of religion. Religion is dictionary defined as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power.” In the coronavirus times I guess that fits: only medics decide who gets the sanctified ventilators, erroneously believed by the public  to be magical cures. If we are seen to be clapping for the people we voted to underfund, the services we agreed to starve of resources, then maybe we will be saved, come judgement day. Clearly they do not know the mortality rate of the ventilated Covid patient- or are they expecting miracles in return for their two minute weekly pan banging fandango? 

Or maybe people are just driven to believe in the  Hocus-Pocus they need to believe in when the stuff they usually believe in stops working? 

Religion was once described as the opiate of the masses, but many people these days have found stronger drugs of choice, and sadly few of them are either available or still functioning: football; the gym; the pub; art; shopping; culture; socialising; sightseeing and travel have all been withdrawn. Hitherto the NHS may have provided some  opiates to the masses but they have being phased out with the “don’t drink, don’t smoke, five-a-day” dictates that left many of us feeling like school prefect had just given us lines and detention for daring to try to enjoy ourselves. 

The irony of this novel turn to pseudo religion is that healthcare professionals neither want to be deified nor feel they deserve it. The double irony is that like it or not they have functioned within and contributed towards a cultural system that resembles a religion in so many ways all their professional lives. The very thing that haunts them now, is the thing they have helped to construct, each one of them, over their professional lifetimes. 

Of course it is blasphemy itself to claim that medicine is a religion when so much of what it claims to do is positioned at the opposite extreme to religion.  Surely medics believe they are scientists?  And that their science has a cognitive basis, strict practice guidelines and regulatory governance?  But, if we take a closer look we will find the uncomfortable truth that the ‘science’ of medicine is about as scientifically robust as that of any religion. Medicine is built on dogma, faith, cult like normative practices and a deliberately bamboozing language that helps to perpetuate a superiority complex. Medicine’s rhetoric, rituals, rites of passage, hierarchy and even dress are as obscure, archaic and exclusive as those of any religion. What medicine and religion have in common is that their evidence base is overridden by the collective desire of human beings  to believe in something. They both bring comfort, but largely through kindness and connection rather than clinical competence or theological rigour.

Walk into an hospital as a patient and you could be in a place of worship. Look around you. There are people in uniforms, doors marked ‘private’, designated seating for the masses, a mystical sort of hierarchy where some of the high priests and priestesses almost receive genuflection, and at the very least a revered tone when spoken to. Archaic titles, strange rituals, latinate language, whispered conversations, and the peculiarly sacrosanct words of illness – hope, faith, prayer; and the euphemisms of death so entwined with religion to be almost inseparable even when we are atheists. 

Of course there is a reason for this. The first hospitals were run by religious orders. Healthcare and religion both, in their own ways, deal with us at the most extreme moments of our lives. In most cases neither can avert the inevitability of death, but this curiously does not stop the patient population from hoping, praying, believing that they can. 

Perhaps now is finally the time when we all ought to stop pretending. The fact is we will all die. One day. The NHS may, on occasion be able to postpone the inevitable for a very small number of us, but it can never prevent it from happening. 

We all have a right to believe in whatever gets us through this life, but here I issue a plea. For their sakes and ours. Stop treating NHS staff as religious beings. They are not gods, angels, saints any more than they are fairy princesses or knights on white chargers. They are people like you and me, doing a job that most of them are grateful to be doing, knowing they would struggle too if holed up at home with no human contact. They are doing the best they can, just as we would be doing if we were able to do our jobs. But they are still human. They can’t save your life if it is not saveable. They live with that fact daily and so must we. Making them work under the weight of our unrealistic expectations, urging them to perform miracles does not help them. Or us. 

It’s time we faced up to reality. We pay into a system that the NHS staff have chosen to work in. What they did not choose was the ten years of underfunding that has driven the NHS to this point, with only two thirds of the staff, beds and resources we had in 2010. No amount of clapping for them will rectify that fact. And expecting them to carry on doing more and more with less and less is grossly unfair. We need to see that placing the responsibility for our survival of this virus on to the NHS clinicians is plain wrong. It is the responsibility of the Government strategy and the people who voted for this Conservative party. 

Maybe it’s about time we all started taking responsibility for what we do, how we behave, and the consequences of that. Expecting good people to do impossible things with insufficient resources, calling them angels or heroes, heaping them with fairytale personas, well, that would test anyone’s faith.