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!

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