Captain Tom and the Heroes of the NHS

My grandfather was a brave man. To me, as a young boy, he was a hero. He served in the Navy in World War Two during the Battle of the Atlantic, and spent four days in an open boat after his ship was torpedoed by the Germans…and he couldn’t really swim. I looked up to him as a rock and benevolent overseer in my life. Nowadays the label is role model. But he never trumpeted his experiences or walked tall because of it. He was humble, uncritical, and always gracious.
So when I saw Captain Tom Moore, last week celebrate his 100th birthday with a Battle of Britain flypast having raised more than £30 million from walking around his garden a few times, I did wonder what might have been going through his mind.
He was a soldier who saw action, yet his daily garden stroll with a walking frame brought him worldwide recognition, resulting in a train and a hospital being named after him, an honour guard from his regiment, and promotion to the rank of Colonel. A baffling way of rewarding such practical endeavour to this old warrior no doubt.
Heroism is a word bandied around very easily these days, but to those of a certain generation it was indelibly linked to death, selflessness and sacrifice. Codes and experience that barely touch our daily lives now, even for the frontline services.
During this lockdown, we are linked to the world more than ever before through cyberspace and telephone. We have the tools. We have all we need here in the rich West…practically, materially, socially, and emotionally. So it is astonishing how much we are clinging to our new “heroes” in the NHS. Clapping from our doorsteps each week; children’s posters; millions of pounds raised; endless outpouring of national support and wellbeing to those in hospital and ambulance uniforms. Like a wartime effort in fact. All for the NHS.
It is a social phenomenon like no other, and almost casts the NHS as a new state religion, a cult even, especially now the church is so marginalised from public life. Its not healthy. What is going on? And is this truly reality? Are people in uniforms (and I am one of them two/three days a week!) really heroes?
Back to that question later, but first a digression.
In 1912 a man named Alexis Carrel, a Frenchman living in the US, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine as one of the most gifted surgeons of his day. He was expert in the field of suturing, and invented a way of splicing arteries to keep the interior surface smooth and therefore clot-free, saving countless lives in doing so. In his long career he also carried out the first coronary bypass operation (on a dog) and did pioneering work to help pave the way for organ transplants and tissue grafts. He was widely respected. Thousands came to hear him speak at the New York Academy of Medicine, and in 1935 he wrote a best-selling book Man the Unknown.
So, a wonderful human being you might think!? A hero even?
Not so, according to history at least. Carrel was a close associate of Charles Lindbergh, the first aviator to cross the Atlantic and an known admirer of Hitler and the Nazis. When the good doctor confessed he believed those who were criminal, defective or backward should be “euthenistically disposed of in gas chambers” for the good of humanity, he found a receptive audience – the ideology that was the genesis of the Holocaust.
The solution to the earth’s problems, he maintained, was to create a “High Council of Doctors” – remarkably similar sounding to the Government’s SAGE advisory committee now in fact – a professional elite whose main role was to control all human growth and development.
This man who did so much to save lives, potentially an author for the worst genocide in history. You could not make it up.
Now to juxtapose the current NHS annexation of all Covid-19 patients with Carrel’s warped thinking is perhaps a harsh and unfair piece of mischief. But the pathway of the narrative is disturbingly similar to our current circumstance. And there are plenty of statistics and figures to back it up (more of which later).
The media and government, the state, have painted a picture for us all, during this coronavirus pandemic, of salvation by medicine and science. And the NHS and its leaders – Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Science Officer Patrick Vallance – as the high practitioners. The apparatus around them has led the government to create laws to support any and every decision made by this group, and they are being universally and evangelically praised. Fanaticism is the new normal! It is troubling stuff.
As an ambulance driver carrying Covid patients to and from hospital every week, this seems like insanity to me. People smiling unctiously at me, thanking me overtly, waving to me from motorway bridges, offering to pay for my drinks (I get reasonably good pay). Its madness in and of itself. I’m doing a job which gets me out of the house, rewards me well, and probably poses no more risk than a lorry driver on Britain’s busy roads.
And what about the risk to the patients coming in to hospitals for treatment? Medical error is the third biggest cause of death in the US each year, after cancer and heart disease. In 2017 it resulted in some 40,000 deaths in the UK. More than 50,000 people die of sepsis each year here, many as a result of infection from hospital procedures. The NHS is a dangerous place for some, not saving lives but taking them…literally! That is before we even start on the issues of abortion and end of life care (or lack of it!), and the many maternity unit and other scandals in hospitals over recent years.
In this context, the label of heroism seems bizarre, to put it mildly. Have we been sold a lie? Is it brainwashing or propaganda?
In fact this pandemic is nothing new under the sun. For the past three centuries there have been three pandemics every hundred years. The Spanish flu in 1918/19 killed more people than the First World War before it. And there were further pandemics in 1957 and 1968. The latter Hong Kong flu resulted in more than 50,000 deaths in the UK. It barely touched the public consciousness.
Here today, we are instead running billions of pounds in debt, facing mass unemployment, global recession, and stacking up mental health and severe health problems resulting from delayed diagnosis due to the lockdown. In the week to April 10, there were 8,500 deaths in the UK from Covid, about the same as the first week in January 2000, a bad flu year. Crisis, what crisis?
Our new religious leaders from the NHS would have us sitting at home for the rest of the year, and many of the population would happily acquiesce. Is this really about the common good, or is it something else so fundamental to the human condition – pride, folly, fear? I have no answers, just the symptoms to go on.
CS Lewis called the search for state-managed utopia “soft tyranny”. “The tyrant who thinks he is selflessly trying to improve you and me is without limits,” he said.
The paradoxical results of such well-meaning tyranny were the reign of terror in the French Revolution’s pursuit of liberty, equality and fraternity; and Marx’s economic solution to social ills which resulted in the gulags and killing fields of the last century.
The NHS here in Britain is all we have when it comes to healthcare, but words like hero, and phrases like “saving lives” ring hollow in the ears. The facts simply don’t bear it out.
Let’s get back to reality, and normality, and start treating our flawed but functional NHS for what it is – a means to an end, not the end in itself! And save the hero worship for those who really deserve it, like Captain Tom, and my Grandad!

The Great Coronavirus Outbreak of 2020.

In 1989 I was working as a district reporter on a daily newspaper – the Western Daily Press.

One Sunday morning, early in the year, I arrived in the office and phoned the newsdesk. They told me a contact of mine had called in with a story.

Forty three people had died of a flu virus at nearby Tone Vale psychiatric hospital. (To put this in some kind of context, as I write, fewer than 10 people have died in the whole South West from the coronavirus).

The story I eventually wrote went big, appeared on our front page, and was picked up by all the national newspapers. I was expecting a storm.

But unlike the mass hysteria of the latest outbreak, the response from Government, local authorities and NHS could not have been more casual. In fact the county press officer told me it was “just one of those things”. I quoted him. The story was gone in less than a week.

Now what really strikes me is the extraordinary contrast in community and corporate attitude, and response, to something that appears, on the face of it, to be the same as today. An uncontrolled virus (all the hospital patients at Tone Vale at that time had been immunised) which takes lives, and spreads like wildfire. Yet rather than public alarm and widespread action, there was passivity and indifference. Human lives being lost at an alarming rate, caused by a public health crisis.

It was, and still is, a global problem too. More than half a million people each year die from influenza around the world. These are not small insignificant numbers of human lives, yet we hear almost nothing of it in the media.

If we are now enforcing (soft tyranny by a professional elite rather than martial law by armed personnel) lockdown rules on an entire population on the basis of this outbreak, then how was this country so bafflingly immune to care and concern in 1989? It makes no sense at all.

I couldn’t find figures for last year, but I did discover in the winter of 2008/2009 more than 13000 people died of influenza….in this country. Not the UK mind you, but England. I was here at the time, and working for the NHS, and can’t remember hearing a thing about it. Let alone draconian public isolation measures being imposed, and mass hysteria.

The annual total for flu deaths in this country in fact ranges somewhere between 5000 and 14000…each year.

What is going on? How is the NHS somehow perfectly equipped to deal with the influenza threat killing thousands of people, but unable to cope at all with the coronavirus? I know ventilators are specialist equipment, but ICU beds are the same year in, year out.

I can only speculate (although I suspect the viral nature of modern day, 24-hour, global media and social media is partly responsible) but why are politicians, public health officials, just about everyone in visible civic leadership…globally… in a frenzy about this, and yet visibly did not bat an eyelid over the horror story I wrote in 1989? It seems to me a form of collective insanity.

When I look back through history at the world leaders who apparently entranced their nations with rhetoric and propoganda, leading them to ignominy and sometimes destruction through awful policies of eugenics and genocide, I now watch the daily government news briefings on the BBC and wonder.

Franz Kafka once said: “It doesn’t matter if something is true, only that it is necessary.”

On that basis, anything is possible as long as those in power can convince the masses of the need. QED social distancing, social isolation, and subjugation.

I have few answers to the conundrum, but I do believe the questions need to be asked and addressed.

The alternative is collective denial and the resulting population-wide symptoms of suppression and isolationism.

Additionally, as a Christian, I guess I believe in absolute, universal truth.

That means religion, as a life and death worldview, has a part to play. And therefore, thus far, the response by the church has been something of a puzzle. I love the church. It is a place of safety, security, comfort, fellowship and warmth, not just for its own, but for all mankind, for anyone.

But it only functions through unity, community, and being a collective body. In other words, church and social isolationism are mutually exclusive. (You could debate that Western living, all living apart in our own private homes, is in itself a form of isolationism).

Its not going too far to say the church would never have been born at all in the current climate of measures in Europe. The Bible says the early Christians were “all together and in one place”. They were in fact in breach of the current directives. The Holy Trinity – God, Son, and Holy Ghost – is a model rebuke to the practice of social distancing.

Meeting together was not only vital to the spread of the early church, it was a template for the church down through the centuries. Relationships mattered! So much so in fact the loyalty and sacrifice meant many gave their lives rather than compromise. Abraham Lincoln called it “the last full measure of devotion”

So the readiness and unseemly eagerness of the church authorities to take a lead in self imposing these individualistic measures appears counter-cultural. Why would a body that thrives and depends on human compassion, intimacy and contact for its very existence, its raison d’etre, its great commission, then retreat to private isolation and refuse to meet?

Again, it makes no sense. Especially when the message of wholeness and healing are so central to the gospel? Every hair on our head is numbered says the scripture. Do not stop meeting together. If any of you is sick, call the elders to lay hands on the sick person and they will be made well. That’s not a fairy tale, its sacred holy text.

Our collective and individual sanity and faith will be pushed and prodded and tested in these coming months of hiding and hibernation. There is safety in numbers, but isolation makes us weaker to the enemy, whoever or whatever that might be.

This invisible virus, with its oppressive media/PR footprint, is out there somewhere…shaking the world. But it is only stronger for the power we give it through our thoughts, words and actions.

Keep Calm and Carry On was great wartime advice. Something the current civic apparatus is determined to test. But the decree of the State is for us to be isolated from one another. I can’t think of many things less healthy for the human soul!



From the Heart….


Basically, I am allowing a group of people I barely know to stick a very sharp pointy thing into the most precious thing I own – my heart – whilst drugging me with a chemical  used to kill prisoners by lethal injection on death row.

If they accidently make a mistake and one of a whole list of things go wrong, they assume no responsibility. It is my choice to take the risk.

Not only that, even if they do everything correctly it may nevertheless make things worse, and I may need to come back and let them do it all over again. And in turn, that may or may not work!

For this, the consultant gets paid a six figure sum out of the taxpayer pot and takes credit for any outcome that is succesful, but is completely blameless if it goes wrong, or it does not work out. He gets to do this hundreds of times a year. He is unlikely to see me again in the event of a bad outcome.

Great work if you can get it, I’d say!

Tomorrow is the day of my heart catheter ablation for paroxysmal arrhythmia and I am perhaps a little bit nervous…to say the least. Potential imminent death or trauma does funny things to the mind, no matter how minimal the risk.

The odds are stacked in my favour, but they have come down since I saw the cardiologist 18 months ago. Back then he was predicting an 80 to 90 per cent success rate (which even then seemed a bit risky!), but since then I have seen them drop to the point we are now looking at 40 to 50 per cent. How did that happen? Is this the NHS’s very own nudge unit, changing the message by stealth?

And because it is the NHS, they are concerned with process and outcome. I get the impression they trust the process implicitly, but have very little confidence of the outcome (and of course its me and my family who live with the outcome).

“This procedure was made for someone like you,” the consultant cardiologist told me boldly, with his support staff ranged along the back wall behind him.

By the time we were at the pre-op assessment two weeks ago I had been downgraded to a nurse consultation – a guy called Nick – and he was giving me all the bad news he could think of. Heart puncture, stroke, nerve damage, aneurysm, embolism, heart attack, deep vein thrombosis, even death. And by the way, you may well need a second one of these if we can’t sort things out first time.

Like many generally healthy, fit males of a certain age, I like to come across, especially in front of my wife and groups of strangers, as brave, confident, but accessible, and as is the modern way, able to be vulnerable and honest with my feelings.

This places an inordinate strain on the ethical, faith-led half of my brain which is generally screaming: “What are you talking about? This is incoherent and makes no sense whatsoever!”

The composure and calmness of those who are about to participate in this brutal experimental process simply adds to atmosphere of what appears to me to be excessive corporate denial. Do they really not understand that this is my heart they are playing with, not my little finger, and that it is NOT ok for the outcome to be anything other than perfect success and recovery?

I ring the thoughtfully named Arrhythmia Helpline this morning and predictably reach the answerphone and leave a message. The skin infection I had has been checked by the GP and will not be anywhere near the femoral vein where they plan to insert the wire into my body for the procedure to begin. Oh, and I had a touch of diarrhoea earlier in the week. Is this a problem?

Maybe they will call back. Maybe not. The waiting is attritional, and only bearable through focusing elsewhere. Work, family, practicalities.

Do I believe in God? Of course I do. But do I feel Him around and about while this is all going on. No I do not. That is why it is called faith. You do it anyway.

Tomorrow I will find out what is on the other side of this human drama. And where it is leading for the future. The hours are beginning to slow down, and the rain is starting to fall…

God bless the NHS!