Zenos Metevsky comments on fervour for the NHS in the streets of Hastings

Bank holiday sunshine lights up the back streets of Hastings – silent, empty and lined with parked cars. The majority of windows have blinds down, I suppose they help to keep the digital screens brighter within. But many windows, too, display posters, official or homemade, with rainbow colours adorning the ubiquitous message: ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. The images are redolent of those local shrines in rural regions of Southern Europe where Catholic faith remains strong. And that comparison is apt: for belief in the National Health Service has become a religion more widely and tenaciously held than any form of Christianity in modern Britain.

The Church was once the haven for the faithful in times of plague. Although mediaeval populations might rationally have come to doubt either the goodness of the Almighty in inflicting the cruelties of disease upon them or His omnipotence in failing to halt its ravages, but history tends to relate the contrary: the higher the casualties, the more fervently they joined their priests in praying to Him for salvation. Belief in Him, moreover, might be the state of grace necessary at the moment of death to avoid a hereafter of everlasting hellfire.

Covid-19 – season of veneration

The NHS seems to occupy an equivalent popular veneration during this Covid-19 season. Rational observers might highlight its failure to prepare, despite apparent years of warning. There have been insufficient beds, lack of equipment and apparel; an economic and social lockdown has had to be imposed across the whole of society in order that it could avoid being “overwhelmed”; the death count in Britain is now the highest in Europe, even while almost all other medical priorities have been abandoned. Politicians and bureaucrats have come under fire for failing to provide resources over a long period, and for mismanaging the logistics of providing protective equipment and rolling out a testing programme. But they are like mediaeval priests found guilty of venial sins unworthy of their offices. Belief in the sanctity of the NHS as an institution remains apparently undimmed, its frontline staff lauded as saintly heroes (even if not remunerated or protected as such); criticism is treated as blasphemy. 

Failure to observe its current sacred rituals, from frequent hand-washing to minimising time and social contact outside the home, not only invites criminal sanctions but moral obloquy – the guilt of putting other people’s lives at risk. There’s also the uncomfortable sense that we are all going to end up, sooner or later in our lives, dependent on the comforts of modern medical science, as people once sought the comforts of religion. Lack of faith in its practitioners may come to seem not just ungrateful but impious.

Government Dogma

At all events, no evidence that challenges ‘the science’ is allowable. Suggestions that the numbers of dead and seriously ill from Covid-19 might be exaggerated in comparison with other medical eventualities, or that alternative health models might produce a better balance between the direct risks of the disease and the collateral effects of lockdown, are dismissed as ‘fake news’.

This goes not just for mainstream media coverage on the BBC and in national newspapers, both of which explicitly support government dogma. Even pan-global social media like Google and Facebook have brought themselves into line, reckoning that their brands are better protected by going with the orthodoxy than opening themselves to heretical alternatives. From  16th April Facebook contrived a programme that “users who have read, watched or shared false coronavirus content will receive a pop-up alert urging them to go the World Health Organisation’s website”, where the “true” facts are supposed to be relied upon. On April 22nd YouTube, which is owned by Google, issued a statement that “any content that disputes the existence or transmission of Covid-19, as described by the WHO [World Health Organization] and local health authorities is in violation of YouTube policies” – and will be taken down.

Politicians and bureaucrats have come under fire… like mediaeval priests found guilty of venial sins unworthy of their offices

British political leaders, many of whom regard the political process as a game of brand-protection, have learnt to coat themselves in NHS orthodoxy. Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, speaking at his first Tory party conference as leader in 2006 declared: “Tony Blair explained his priorities in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters: NHS. We will serve and support the National Health Service. We will never jeopardise the NHS by cutting its funding.” And he used, as proof of commitment, his personal role as parent of a child with cerebral palsy. “For me, it’s not just a question of saying the NHS is safe in my hands. My family is so often in the hands of the NHS, so I want them to be safe there.”

The NHS Flag

Current PM Boris Johnson’s most prominent rhetorical flourish prior to getting himself elected leader was his highly dubious claim, made during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016, that £350 million pounds per week could be re-directed from the EU to the NHS once Britain had left. Perhaps not many people believed him – but so what, he was showing he understood and endorsed the popular belief system.

Wrapping the NHS flag even tighter around himself, his recent unscheduled personal hospitalisation as a Covid-19 victim ended as he miraculously rose from the hospital bed on Easter Sunday. Describing his narrow escape from death by virtue of the “amazing” care and attention he received, Boris has literally lived out a religious paradigm of suffering and redemption. 

In his first address to the nation on 12th April, after being released from hospital earlier that day, he said, “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. 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.”

Church of England Website

What, in the meantime, happened to Christianity – the religion that was supposed to be powered by love? Its churches are closed, its ceremonies stalled. Church buildings cannot be used for weddings nor for funerals. A message on the Church of England website instructs its priests that it is “still vital that the necessary hygiene and social distancing precautions are kept in place in order to protect the NHS and save lives”. 

Saving souls? Reminding us that we are all mortal, and that there may be limits to the value of preserving lives at the expense of all else? That’s old time religion, as apparently irrelevant as incense and hellfire. And who needs church services? The good news gospel is celebrated in these times by an enthusiastically devout, if socially distanced, congregation down your street every Thursday night, clapping for the carers.
Zenos Metevsky is a Hastings resident


I am aware that this piece somewhat ‘goes against the grain’ of the current consensus on the NHS and is likely to provoke various reactions and debate. I remind readers of my column on this page in HIP145, where I stated, “We wanted to create an open space in which people are free to set out their views on what they consider to be the pressing political issues of the moment, and also to react and respond to views expressed by others”. If you have an opinion that is different to this and feel moved to respond, then I would very much welcome hearing from you as per the contact details above. 
Juliet Harris
Editor, Thoughts and Voices

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