Remember the dark days of lockdown when we clapped for the NHS? The pandemic made us deeply aware of its value and importance. But nearly three years later, it seems close to collapse. Thirteen-hour waits for ambulances, sick patients lying in corridors, staff exhausted and running on empty. The media tells of nationwide anguish and grief as we see the death of patients who might have survived in different circumstances – meanwhile the government is locked in a battle with the unions as medical workers stage strike action.
What is happening and how can we respond?
Over the past dozen years or so, NHS funding (paid for by taxation) has been tightened, while our population has been getting older and living longer. This means more pressure on the NHS.
But it has also become harder to recruit and retain staff, and one in ten NHS posts are currently vacant. This means fewer people can be treated.
And because successive governments have failed to grasp the nettle of social care in the community, many hospital beds are filled by people who are ready to be discharged but have nowhere to go - a practice which goes by the horrid term 'bed blocking'.
Then came Covid. As well as the dreadful toll of the disease itself, many people did not come forward with other conditions during the pandemic. These people are now iller than they might have been. Waiting times for elective surgery are lengthy, and flu and covid rates are also rising.
So a perfect storm is battering the NHS. Politicians of different parties lay the blame on different factors, but it's unarguable that there has been a lack of long term planning by governments looking for short term headlines.
How can Christians respond to this situation? Sometimes issues seem so big that we struggle to find a way in. Let's start by reminding ourselves, as we always do, that God is sovereign. In the words of Genesis 18:14, when God promised the medical miracle of a baby to the elderly Abraham and Sarah, "is anything too hard for the Lord?" No crisis is too big for him to tackle, and no individual's situation is too small for him to care about.
The NHS is venerated almost as a religion in the UK, but let's remember that, ultimately, just like politics, it cannot save us. Only Jesus can do that. But the NHS is our country's chosen method to provide healthcare to our population, and it is designed to build our capacity to live life to the full.
The 1944 White Paper introducing the concept of the NHS spoke of the need for a new attitude, to promote "increasing good health and the sense of well-being". Theologian Jürgen Moltmann defines health as "the strength to be human." The value we place on healthcare points to our status as valued beings made in God's image: compassion and dignity for those being cared for, and a sense that the medical profession fulfils a high 'calling' to serve others.
Because we are Christians, we don't think that people with a chronic long-term condition, a terminal illness or high social care needs are any less valuable than others, and so we will surely be prepared to fight for the resources that will show that we value them in practice, not just in theory?
It's important also to think more broadly about the nation's health: everything is linked to everything else, and poor physical and mental health can be caused by poverty, unhealthy lifestyles, poor nutrition, air pollution, unsafe living conditions ... which are in turn caused by wider social problems such as lack of educational and economic opportunity, and family breakdown. Solutions need to take all these factors into account and not think of the NHS as an isolated service.
So let's pray for wisdom for the PM, Chancellor and Health Secretary; for their ministers and civil servants; for NHS leaders and unions, as they all seek a way forward. At a summit with health leaders at the weekend, Rishi Sunak said that a bold and radical approach is needed. Let's thank God that this summit happened, and let's pray for God's guidance as discussions take place and for the participants always to remember the human dignity of patients and staff on the frontline.
Let's pray for strength and stamina for NHS staff who are exhausted by constant pressures and see no end in sight. If we need to access the health service ourselves, we can offer encouragement and support to the practitioners we meet. It's not just the hospitals and care homes that are struggling – GP surgeries are hugely stretched, and a kind word goes a long way.
And let's pray for those who are ill and need the support of the NHS at this time, and for their families, that they will not be afraid and that they will be able to receive the care that they need. Let's pray ultimately that those facing illness and uncertainty will put their faith in Jesus the ultimate Saviour, and the One who promises, in the words of Revelation 21:4, that one day, for those who will trust in him "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain".
Tim Farron has been the Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005, and served as the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party from 2015 to 2017.Tim is also the host of Premier's 'A Mucky Business' podcast. His new book A Mucky Business: Why Christians should get involved in politics is published in November.