We often talk of U-turns for governments, but seldom do we apply such a term to public opinion. In the case of public approval of the NHS, however, such a concept might have never been more pertinent.
People are falling out of love with the NHS, and falling fast. In 2020, 53% of the public were satisfied with the NHS. Fast forward 12-months, and that has fallen to a mere 36% – not only the largest fall in a single year but the lowest level of public satisfaction since 1997. Indeed, only once since the records began back in 1983 have satisfaction levels with the NHS been lower than they are now.
After imploring the public to stay cooped up indoors – justified with the repetitive bark: “protect the NHS” – it seems the public are not so happy with the results: a broken and bruised NHS. Now, their sacrifices seem quite pointless. But this should come as no surprise. While medical “professionals” focused efforts on triple jabbing low-risk teens and those in their early twenties, the rest of the population was told that “non-urgent appointments and elective surgeries may have to be postponed”. A national religion with such warped priorities deserves to face the wrath of a disgruntled public.
The public cited waiting times to get a GP appointment or hospital care as a main driver of their satisfaction (or lack thereof). With six million people in the UK on a waiting list for some form of medical care, it’s a wonder satisfaction levels aren’t even lower. No amount of banging tambourines on the front doorstep or cheering for “front line workers” will change the fact that the National Health Service is, in fact, a service – and, when it is working as it should, at the public’s service. When it fails to fulfil this fundamental function, the public will stay pacified for only so long.
So what does this mean for the future of healthcare in Britain?
It is well known that no backbencher, let alone a Health Secretary, wants to touch the topic of Health Care reform. Fixing the NHS entails a turnover of how it functions, and to even mention a minor tweak promises political suicide. Health Secretaries would rather throw good money after bad than risk being seen as selling the NHS to the Yanks (even though privatisation need not entail this). But such cowering behind taxpayer’s money will last only so long. A frank and honest discussion of privatisation, as and where possible, must beckon.
And, at long last, this moment in time could prove the opportunity for the Tory Government to tackle health provision head-on and look to genuine reform of the NHS. Mammoth waiting lists, the near impossibility of securing in-person consultations, and scandals like those at Telford and Shrewsbury maternity hospitals, all provide clear straws to break the stubborn camel’s back when it comes to touching the precious NHS.
As it stands, when the public don’t like the NHS, they unfortunately have to lump it. The NHS prevents private healthcare from being a real consideration for most people, with costs for any alternative to the state provision often serving as crippling options or outright impossibilities. Look across to the US and while we see a far from perfect system, we do see added benefits from a competitive market. The five years I spent living and working in the US were the best years of health care I received. Granted, my university or employer paid for my health coverage and my wages reflected that, but the healthcare on offer was truly second to none. Making this option accessible to more people in the UK would bring benefits.
In short, there are two options when it comes to the blessed NHS: spend, or reform.
The days of clapping on the doorstep for the national religion are over. Will the Government use this time to bang the drum for serious reform instead? One can only hope.