The NHS has reinforced its sacramental status in British eyes

Will British general election campaigns ever be the same again after the Covid-19 pandemic? And will the Conservatives be the long-term beneficiaries of the crisis?

Since time immemorial, Labour’s strongest card in any campaign has been its ownership of the NHS. As it never fails to remind the voters, it was a Labour government that set up the taxpayer-funded, free-at-the point of use healthcare service after the Second War – and it was the Tory Party that yearned, not always so secretly, to dismantle it and sell it off to the highest bidder.

A classic case in point was the so-called “War of Jennifer’s Ear” in the 1992 campaign when Labour sparked massive headlines over its televised claim that a five-year-old girl had been denied treatment on the NHS that she would readily have received had her parents had the money for her to be seen privately.

As a matter of routine the party has blamed shortcomings in the state-run service, which enjoys a near monopoly over UK health care, on Tory cuts in health funding. In the last campaign, seeking to revive this tried and tested bogeyman, it advanced the seemingly implausible claim that Boris Johnson had a secret plan to sell the NHS (and presumably its 1.3 million staff) to Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, the American President denied the claim. After all, he made his money in real estate and 5 star hotels, a far cry from the opulence of the average district general.

It is not difficult to pick holes in Labour’s refrain that the NHS is only safe in its hands. After all, the Conservatives have formed the UK government for 45 of the 72 years since the inception of the NHS in 1948. If they had some dastardly plan to flog the whole thing off to some rapacious foreign firm, they have been singularly ineffective, not least because in the current year they are spending £140 billion of taxpayer’s money on keeping Labour’s golden child afloat.

But in politics perception counts for more than reality. And the opinion polls consistently show that health is a Labour issue with the party far more widely trusted than the Conservatives to safeguard the service and ensure that no one is denied treatment because they have not got the money to pay the bills.

Could the Government’s handling of the pandemic change that? Certainly the message, rammed home day and night to great effect – Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives – leaves little room for doubt. The lockdown, which continues to enjoy wide public support, is explicit in its insistence that its objective is to protect the NHS against being swamped by a tidal wave of coronavirus patients.

Even more powerful has been the Prime Minister’s personal battle against the virus after he was taken ill and admitted to hospital earlier this month. On emerging from London’s state-run St Thomas’s Hospital, the Prime Minister lavished praise on the doctors and nurses who had saved his life and had this to say about the service he would allegedly sell off to Mr Trump. “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.”

We all know that Boris is prone to changing his mind. But rowing back from that, effectively declaring his “love” for the virtually unique of British system of healthcare, would take some doing.

Seemingly, Boris has shot Labour’s fox. Never again will it be able to mount an election campaign founded on the proposition that the NHS is unsafe in Tory hands.

But it is probably not as simple as that. For a start, the battle against the virus has been bedevilled by persistent reports that the NHS has been short of the ventilators, personal protective equipment, ITU beds, specialist staff and tests needed to mount an effective fightback. Scope here for Labour to point the finger of blame at ministers after the inquest into the crisis that will inevitably follow. We have not heard the last of “Tory cuts”, especially since the party has been in power for the last 10 years.

Some, especially on the right of the political spectrum, will be inclined to learn a different lesson. The gross coronavirus death toll in the UK is the fifth highest in the world and the same applies to its ranking by deaths per million of population.  So evidence is mounting that relatively speaking the country’s performance in saving lives has been disappointing, to put it mildly. Other countries, notably Germany, with a far more decentralised system of care featuring many competing private hospitals and health insurance schemes, have done much better. Germany has 50 deaths per million; the UK 215.

Yet despite the signs from aboard that once again the NHS has not proved the envy of the world, advocates of radical change in the system of UK health care have almost certainly long missed the bus. Former Chancellor Nigel Lawson once said that the NHS is the nearest the British have to an organised religion and the events of the past few dark months have probably reinforced that view.

The institution of the NHS has assumed sacramental status, with its doctors and nurses venerated like a priesthood. Every week now, ordinary people take to the streets to applaud their efforts. Many things may be different once the emergency is over. One thing unlikely to change is the hold the NHS has over the British public.

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