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Here is the full text of NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens’ address to the Westminster Abbey celebration of the 70th birthday of the National Health Service:
“I was sick and you took care of me”
That’s the reading we’ve just heard from St Matthew, Chapter 25.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, cites that specific passage in his latest book. He argues that our National Health Service “is the most powerful and visible expression of our Christian heritage” because it “sprang out of a concern that the poor should be able to be treated as well as the rich.”
That has become a unifying ideal – across this nation, and down the generations. A health service that belongs to us all. To those of all faiths, and of none.
To those who fought to bring the NHS to life. To the staff and volunteers who have sustained it ever since. And our families who rely on it, in their troubling times of need.
All these people are represented here in this Abbey today.
Because at its best our National Health Service is the practical expression of a shared commitment by the British people.
There when we need it, at the most profound moments in our lives: At the birth of our children. At the deaths of our loved ones. And all times in between, as we grapple with hope, fear, generosity, loneliness, compassion – some of the most fundamental elements of the human spirit.
These are the times when – as patients and as families – we experience the health service in an intensely vivid and personal way. The blessing of new life. The intrusion of our mortality. These are the moments in our life when we seem to stand outside time. Outside the drumbeat of the humdrum. When we reassess our pasts, and are forced to rethink our futures.
As we do so, standing alongside us are the extraordinary staff of our National Health Service. Today we give thanks – for their service, for their skill, and for their compassion. And for their bravery at times of exceptional challenge. Nurses volunteering alongside Ebola patients. Junior doctors with victims of terrorism. Ambulance crews, GPs and therapists at Grenfell.
And, yes, once again the skill and the bravery of NHS intensive care staff at Salisbury District Hospital – probably the best hospital in the world to be caring for these new victims.
Because today’s anniversary is not just about our collective endeavour. It’s a celebration of the dignity of individual life, and the staff of our health and social care services who support that.
Both Judaism and Islam remind us – in remarkably similar terms – of the unique importance of these acts of healing. The Quran says: “Whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the lives of all men.” The Talmud says: “Whoever saves a single life is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Of course a few people suggest this anniversary is just misty sentiment. Misplaced nostalgia for a bygone era. Carry on Matron meets Call the Midwife.
Well, yes, over seven decades the NHS has both shaped – and been shaped by – our wider society. In a service that usually puts patients first: damaging examples of paternalism, protectionism, a closing of the ranks. In a service where three quarters of our staff are women: equality has taken too long. In a service that, from the very beginning, relied on the Windrush generation: our Black and Asian and minority staff have all too often had to battle against the odds.
So to be proud of our health service is not to be blind to its imperfections. It’s to be honest about its achievements, while holding ourselves to an ever higher standard. Seventy years ago almost to the day, Aneurin Bevan predicted that the Health Service: “must always be changing, growing and evolving” so that “it must always appear to be inadequate”. So here’s the paradox: To continue to succeed in the future, the NHS must always be impatient with the present.
Of course, we’re not the only country on this journey. So we can all learn, as well as teach. That’s how medicine advances.
But Britain has a track record to be proud of. We’re the nation that has given humanity antibiotics, vaccines, modern nursing, hip replacements, IVF, organ transplants, CT scanners, and breakthrough discoveries from the circulation of blood, to the secrets of DNA, and the promise of the human genome.
I joined the NHS thirty years ago on its 40th birthday. Many here today have served longer.
As they look back over their careers they’ll have seen amazing advances. New ways of peering inside the body. Far more effective and humane mental health services. New treatments for killer diseases, from tuberculosis, to HIV, to childhood cancers .
We’ve also seen radical shifts in public attitudes – on disability, on sexuality, on patient power. Women’s control of their own health. Fathers able to be present at the birth of their own children.
And looking out to the NHS’ 80th, and 90th and 100th birthdays, why shouldn’t we feel equally optimistic about further advances within our reach?
So to the brilliant and idealistic young nurse, or paramedic, or scientist, or GP, or care assistant, or manager, or psychologist, or therapist, or surgeon embarking on their NHS career today we say: You’ve made a fantastic career choice. Despite the pressures and sometimes, yes, the frustrations, there is no more worthwhile, or important contribution you can make to our nation for the years ahead. The NHS of the future is largely in your hands.
Which is why, today…
We celebrate the ideal which our NHS embodies.
We give thanks – for the work of our staff and carers and volunteers.
And we reflect on medical advance – looking back with quiet pride, and looking forward: with ambition, and with determination, and with hope.