Alzheimer’s had stolen too many memories by then. But my hunch is that he’d have put any sense of excitement aside and concentrated on trying to make people better and as comfortable as possible, because that’s what he did every day for the rest of his working life as a nurse.
Dad belonged to the generation that built the NHS, part of the first intake of trainees in readiness for the service to be launched exactly 72 years ago tomorrow, on July 5, 1948.
He was 29, older than most newly-qualified nurses today, but not unusual then after his six years’ wartime service in the Royal Artillery, and with classmates of similar age, all recruited to the fledgling service after being demobbed.
I’ll think of him tonight as I light a candle and observe a minute’s silence in memory of all those who have died of coronavirus, and again tomorrow when joining the wave of applause that will sweep across the country to thank the NHS and which will reinforce the sense of national unity this terrible pandemic has fostered.
He’d have been touched, maybe even moved to tears, that there could possibly be such an outpouring of affection for the service to which he was devoted.
So much has changed in the NHS across those seven decades since that summer’s day when my dad saw his first patients, yet the fundamental qualities of the service that he embodied – expertise, compassion, the willingness to do everything in his power to help – remain the same.
The children of NHS staff now will see what I saw – mum or dad coming home exhausted after being rushed off their feet all day or night. They will know too what I came to realise – that the job isn’t paid anything like as well as it should be.
And they’ll also understand what I did – that there is no question of doing anything else, however hard it gets, because it matters too much. It’s more than just a job. It’s a vocation. The dedication of staff like my dad got the NHS through its difficult birth, when it’s all too easily forgotten that it was swamped by a tide of patients with problems that had gone untreated – often for years – because they could not afford healthcare.
Clement Attlee’s Labour government had estimated free universal care would cost £176m in its first year. The actual cost was £437m, a staggering sum for a Britain bankrupted by war.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The NHS at full stretch but somehow coping, turning nobody away, doing everything it can to help, its staff working themselves into the ground, and the money to pay for it simply having to be found because to do otherwise would be unthinkable.
The Britain of 2020 is unrecognisable from that of 1948. Social attitudes, how we earn a living and the multicultural populations of our towns and cities are just some of the indicators of the changes.
But one thing – perhaps the only thing – hasn’t changed at all. The love of Britain’s people, irrespective of age, background or class, for the NHS.
My dad, and the friends who qualified with him, were always taken aback at the affection and gratitude which greeted their work from the day they started to when they retired. That got them through the demands of the job, and made its frustrations bearable.
The testimony of countless NHS staff during the coronavirus crisis has been that the public’s love is still helping to get them through.
Whether that manifests itself in spectacular form, in the person of 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore raising nearly £33m, or comes in the small, but precious gift of a card bearing a child’s rainbow drawing, Britain has sensed that expressing its love for the NHS matters greatly.
What we’ve seen this year between country and NHS has been rather like a renewal of vows by a long-married couple, an affirmation that a love often unspoken deserves voice.
How else to explain the millions who stepped outside every Thursday night for 10 weeks to applaud carers, or the innumerable acts of goodwill, whether raising money or providing meals for NHS staff?
And how else to explain the wholeheartedness with which Britain’s people embraced the message that the NHS had to be protected from being overwhelmed?
This weekend is another opportunity to express that love, and it will be taken up enthusiastically, not only because the public knows the threat from coronavirus is far from over and the NHS faces many challenges in the months ahead. Coming together to light candles and applaud is also about something equally important. It’s about striving to ensure that the qualities at the very core of the NHS become a permanent way of life for communities large and small, as they have been during the lockdown.
Caring for others, doing everything possible to help, acting with compassion and kindness, looking after the vulnerable – this is everyday life in hospitals, clinics and surgeries.
The way families, friends and neighbours have helped each other during the lockdown demonstrates that Britain’s instinct is to reflect the health service’s concern for others.
Amid all the horrors this pandemic has wrought, the one bright spot has been the sheer decency of people in coming to the aid of those in need. A crucial factor in bringing that to the fore has been the unifying force that is the NHS.
The service has led by example in giving its all. But then it always has, from day one in 1948, and on every single day of its 72 years since. That deserves honouring and emulating on this, and every subsequent, birthday of the NHS.
Read Andrew Vine every Tuesday in The Yorkshire Post.
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