Last year, my dad, who had been in hospital for almost a month with a myriad of problems relating to an auto-immune condition, was eventually allowed home on Christmas Eve.
As we drove away from the hospital, I looked back up at the windows of the wards with their twinkling Christmas trees and my eyes filled with tears. Dad was pale and more fragile than I have ever seen him in my life, but he was going home. Those he had left behind on the ward, and the nurses, doctors and support staff caring for them, were not.
Christmas is no respecter of life and death. Or serious illness. Or sudden and life-changing accidents which devastate a family. I know it’s supposed to be the season of goodwill, but it always makes me want to throw something at those who think they are stressed because they’ve lost the receipt for a broken Xbox.
Although I am feeling quite relieved that my own family is in better shape this year, it doesn’t mean that I won’t be sparing a thought for those enduring a more challenging “festive break”.
NHS England estimates that about 97,000 nurses and 53,000 healthcare assistants work over the Christmas period.
And let’s not forget the 200,000 care workers looking after elderly and vulnerable people 24/7 365 days a year. And the 40,000 cleaners and 12,000 porters who keep hospitals and healthcare facilities clean, tidy and operational.
Whatever their faith or family background, every single one of these individuals is making a sacrifice to go to work when all around people are eating, drinking and lying around on the sofa watching films and eating their own body weight in Quality Street.
Imagine what it feels like to wake up to a 5am alarm on Christmas morning and know that you have a 12-hour shift in front of you. Perhaps it’s in A&E. Here is all human life, including quite a lot of patients who really shouldn’t be there, but there’s nowhere else open where they might seek urgent medical attention.
Or maybe it’s on an intensive care ward, where that balance between life and death is so fragile. Or perhaps it’s in a care home, where the elderly residents struggle to remember what day it is, but recall with tears in their eyes the vivid Christmases of their youth.
I mentioned my concerns to an acquaintance who is even more cynical than me. It’s all very touching, he said, but think of the overtime. How galling is this attitude? For the record, my acquaintance isn’t Jeremy Hunt, but it’s just the thing you might expect the Health Secretary to think.
Mr Hunt can say what he likes in his seasonal message but any NHS worker will tell you that 2017 has been the toughest year yet. A system which was already over-burdened is buckling under the strain. The growing and ageing population, cutbacks to GP services throwing weight directly onto A&E, wards closing and the sense that privatisation and centralisation are taking hold.
Next year, the NHS turns 70. To mark these seven decades, there’s a five-year plan. In amongst the laudable promises to create world-leading cancer care and put proper money into mental health care, there’s quite a lot about improving the “productivity” of NHS staff.
Now I don’t know about you, but the last time I was in a hospital it didn’t look much like a factory making widgets. That’s the problem with the Government’s approach; all too often people who work for the NHS, and patients, are treated like cogs in a wheel. I think we all know better than that.
And I’m certainly not the only one to make a stand for the NHS at this time of year. Former Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder has joined forces with comedian Johnny Vegas to record a hit Christmas single – Thank U NHS – to give appreciation to hard-working doctors and nurses.
“Myself, and all those who I love, have been helped countless times by the amazing staff at the NHS,” says Ryder. “To say a simple thank you to them over Christmas, when we’re all tucking into our vats of wine and their morale is dipping, seems like a great thing to do.”
Every music business type and celebrity involved with the release, from former Coronation Street actress Julie Hesmondhalgh to ex-doctor Adam Kay, who wrote the lyrics, as well as a book about his experiences in the NHS entitled This is Going to Hurt, agree about one thing. At this time of year, we should show those who care so diligently for us that we care for them, value them and will be imploring Jeremy Hunt to do more for them in 2018.