Notebook

Will Heaven: Will Britons ever lose faith in the NHS?

The public sees a clash between superhuman doctors and loathed politicians (PA)

Recently I went to see my GP in the busy little surgery that’s about 20 paces from my south London flat. It wasn’t for anything serious, but I was given good advice by a friendly doctor, a prescription, then sent on my way. Walking out, I felt a spring in my step, which I think most people do when a visit to the doctor has gone well. It’s pure gratitude, similar to the feeling of having been unburdened by Confession, or uplifted by Mass.

This is why Nigel Lawson was so spot on when he said: “The National Health Service is the closest thing the English have to a religion, with those who
practise in it regarding themselves as a priesthood.” It’s not just the doctors who regard themselves as a priesthood, though – their patients agree. In his superb book Do No Harm, the brain surgeon Henry Marsh explains that when we are ill and in hospital, fearing for our lives, perhaps awaiting terrifying surgery, we quite understandably “invest doctors with superhuman qualities as a way of overcoming our fears”.

It makes the whole process easier: far scarier to recognise that doctors are human beings, just like the rest of us, and that “much of what happens in hospitals is a matter of luck, both good and bad”. The same is true, on a less serious level, with a visit to the GP. As Lawson recognised, it makes reform of the NHS very difficult to pull off, because as soon as the public sees that a battle is raging between superhuman doctors and loathed politicians, they immediately side with the doctors.

It’s crucial to remember, however, that the NHS is not actually in the premier league of healthcare systems in the world. We’re proud of it, but if we were ill with lots of types of cancer, for example, or suffered a heart attack or a stroke, we’d be better off receiving treatment abroad in countries such as Singapore, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. As the OECD puts it politely: “While access to care is good, the quality of care in the United Kingdom is uneven and continues to lag behind that in many other countries.” What will it take to change our attitudes, so that urgent reform of the NHS can go ahead? I suspect the most crucial element will be courage on the part of the patients – every one of us.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but in my sitting room there is a far-too-big television. It wasn’t very expensive – I bought it at Tesco for a few hundred pounds – but it’s something like 42 inches across. I watch it far too much, bingeing on Netflix documentaries in the evening, usually having spent at least 10 hours sitting in front of a computer screen at work.This Lent, I’m thinking about giving it up. There are so many better ways to spend time: cooking, reading, listening to music. And TV fails the death-bed test – no one is every going to lie on their death bed thinking: “I wish I’d watched that last series of House.”
I’ll have made the final decision by the time you read this, but – oh dear – the more I think about how difficult it will be to give up telly, the more I realise it must be done.

Something disastrous is going on in South Africa, where I have just been visiting my sister, who lives in Cape Town. An incompetent government is squandering Nelson Mandela’s legacy and ruining the economy. That is why it was so incredibly cheap to go on holiday there: the value of the rand has halved against the pound in just a few years. The problem, essentially, is that there is no real opposition to the ANC, the party that fought to end apartheid. The vast majority of black voters support it, no matter how little it achieves. The president, Jacob Zuma, has therefore grown complacent and increasingly despotic.

More and more South African voters, however, are “born-frees” – born after South Africa became fully democratic in 1994. In fact they will make up a third of voters by the next election in 2019. Maybe one day, in the not-too-distant future, South Africans who care more about the present than the past will kick out the governing ANC and give someone else a go. That would be the moment the country reached democratic maturity.

Will Heaven is comment editor of The Sunday Telegraph