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Sir Simon Stevens, NHS Chief Executive, speaking at a special service of commemoration and thanksgiving held at St Paul’s Cathedral today (Monday 5 July), the anniversary of the health service’s foundation, said: Here in St Paul’s, we are reminded of extraordinary lives. Here are the tombs and memorials of Nelson and Wellington, Florence Nightingale and Alexander Fleming. A rollcall of heroes and history.
But today perhaps we affirm a different truth. A truth captured by the novelist George Eliot. That: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
So, in this cathedral are gathered today patients and families, and representatives of those faithful millions of health service staff, carers and volunteers – from across our country, and who through this pandemic have served so selflessly.
Today we give thanks to them. And also, to the care workers, the shop assistants, the bus drivers, the teachers and countless others on whom we as NHS staff ourselves depend.
As well as thanksgiving, this is a service of commemoration.
But how to mark this terrible pandemic? For some it is still too soon, too raw, too personal. For others – a need to make sense of our shared experiences.
Of extraordinary kindness, compassion, and courage. Quiet stoicism, shared hope, even cautious pride: in science, in new treatments, and in our vaccines.
But also, our experiences of fear and loss; of vulnerability and loneliness; of anger and regret.
With over four million lives lost to covid around the world, we’ve become all too familiar
with the daily census of infections and hospitalisations and deaths.
But care has no calculus. Each life – unique. The Jewish Talmud says: “Whoever saves a single life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” And the Quran says: “Whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the lives of all men.”
How then can there be a fitting memorial for lives taken, and service given?
On a pillar in this cathedral is a monument to a doctor from Guy’s hospital. He perished during a19th Century epidemic then sweeping London because – as the Royal College of Physicians records – he “was prevented by the demands made upon him from others from giving to his own case the repose and care which it required’.
Now – as we come to terms with our 21st century pandemic – St Paul’s has launched an online covid book of remembrance, for those of all faiths and of none.
But that is not the only form commemoration can take.
This cathedral itself is an example of – to coin a phrase – ‘Building Back Better’. Christopher Wren’s masterpiece rising out of the ashes of the great fire of London, and the devastation of the great bubonic plague.
But today on this particular anniversary we draw inspiration from another way of Building Back Better. Not bricks and mortar, or concrete and steel. But a gift this country gave itself exactly 73 years ago. An institution founded on 5th July 1948, in place of fear, and in a spirit of optimism. At a time of great economic and social uncertainty, coming shortly after the sacrifices of war.
A National Health Service now integral to the life and wellbeing of our nation, recognised today by the Queen for having “over more than seven decades…supported the people of our country with courage, compassion and dedication”.
And an inspiring example for our own generation of how out of adversity can come strength, if together we choose – like those who came before us – to confront and resolve our deepest social challenges, with determination and conviction and courage.