Protect the NHS

by Rachel Worsley

A year unlike any other

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it a year unlike any other in living memory for the NHS and for the public who rely on it. Not since the Olympics in 2012 has the public’s gratitude for the NHS been so visible as when people took to their doorsteps each week to Clap for Carers. The pandemic has certainly highlighted the strength of feeling the public have for the NHS, but what else has it meant for this important relationship? How has it affected what we expect from it and how we use it?

Before the pandemic, the public were not only proud of the NHS, but also acutely aware of resourcing pressures. When we asked the country about the biggest issue facing the NHS, the most common response was ‘lack of resource and investment’ – mentioned spontaneously by nearly half of the public (45%). In qualitative discussions, it was often clear that the public thought the NHS was something to be treasured and protected and there was a sense of concern among some that others took it for granted and used it inappropriately.

Thank you NHS banner

“The cost of people not using services responsibly is that other people are missing out on treatment that they actually need.”

London, 33–50 years old

As cases of COVID-19 rapidly increased in spring, resource concerns provided a backdrop for the national lockdown and Government messaging focused on not overwhelming the NHS.

Overall, the public think that the health services have coped with the pandemic, with three quarters (77%) saying hospitals were managing well in July. However, our deliberation with Londoners on changes to the NHS in response to COVID-19 revealed an ongoing desire to protect the NHS, as well as a willingness to reshape our relationship with it. Participants talked about our responsibility to ensure that the NHS can ‘do its job’ and ‘care for us’. They told us they were willing to start using the service differently over this time and accept a reduction of convenience and choice, such as waiting longer for treatment or travelling further from home.

Mother and young son virtual doctors appointment

The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the opportunities technology brings for the NHS

This willingness to change was reflected in the use of virtual appointments. In the same way many of us have become used to connecting with family or colleagues virtually, so too have we been triaged for dental appointments or seen our GPs over a screen. The public were not only willing to do this, but three-fifths (62%) now say that they are comfortable having an appointment with a GP virtually and a similar proportion (59%) say they are comfortable having a non-emergency hospital appointment in this way. The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the opportunities technology brings for the NHS and the public appear to be positive about this change, with some important caveats around not leaving the digitally excluded behind.

This year, and the events that have defined it, have provided the foundation for reframing public expectations of the relationship with the NHS in a way we have not seen before. The NHS is seen as having coped brilliantly in 2020, and concern about it fell even as the second wave of infections rose.  The question is whether the public will remain as loyal in 2021 and beyond, as it struggles to deal with huge waiting lists that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Certainly, the public is expecting Government to make the money it asks for available – the question will be how that money is raised.

Rachel Worsley

Rachel Worsley

Research Director