In recent days we’ve been celebrating the 70th birthday of the NHS. And a lot of the stress – rightly – have been on marking and enjoying the fact that for seven decades our most valued national institution has been giving us the security of knowing that all of us, according to the urgency of our need, have access to the best that medicine can do for us.
That’s important, for when we are talking about the NHS over recent years it is most often in negative terms, not so much about the health service itself, but what is being done to it: underfunding, privatisation, the closure of crucial, valued local services, the pressures our deeply unhealthy society are putting on it.
Instead, now’s a great time to think about what this venerable institution – so loved by the public ― can teach us about how other areas of policy should work.
If we boil what the NHS offers down to one word, it is security. No one need fear lying bleeding on the street, worrying quietly at home about a disturbing symptom, watch a love one’s life deteriorating, without the ability to get treatment.
When you read accounts of what life was like for many before the NHS, women with prolapsed uteri just living with the agony and misery without treatment, people gasping their lives away without professional care, it’s a reminder of just how wonderful that security is.
When you read accounts from Americans, who make their life decisions about jobs, moves, even relationships, on the basis of the impact it will have on their health insurance, then it’s another reminder.
We need to keep that security in the NHS – and make no mistake it is continually under threat (and has already been diminished in dental and eye services) – but we also need to extend it to other areas of life.
Housing would be a great place to start. We should stop thinking about houses primarily as financial assets and regard them as the way of providing everybody with a secure, genuinely affordable, place to live.
That means giving private tenants genuine security – in leases and in cost. We need to set a living rent (generally no more than 30% of take-home income) as well as a real living wage (not the fake the government tries to apply that label to now).
And income. Millions of households now have no security of income, with zero-hours contracts, insecure short-term employment, swingeing benefit sanctions and the horrors of universal credit.
Universal basic income – a payment made to everyone accepted as a member of our society, regularly, without conditions, would have the same impact as the NHS has had on our health. It gives security and takes away the fear of being left penniless.
Provide a universal basic income and genuinely affordable housing and you’d be a very long way towards being able to close the last foodbank due to lack of demand, which is what we should be aiming for.
We made the right decision in 1948 – in a society that had been impoverished by war but that was determined to acknowledge the need for security in the recovery.
We’re again in desperate straits – whole communities are economically and socially hanging on by their fingernails, millions of households not sure if they’ll be able to make ends meet.
Now’s the time to be bold and learn from the great success of 70 years ago. Let’s build a secure society, which will have to be a far more equal society, with less for the 1% and more for all of us. Then everyone will be far better off.