Happy 73rd birthday to the NHS. It’s had a dreadful year. This time last year, we were all on our doorsteps clapping for it. On its birthday in 2020 only 196 people were admitted to UK hospitals with COVID-19. Since then, more than 340,000 patients have been in hospital with COVID-19 and the surgical waiting list has grown to more than 5 million patients.

Were the NHS a person, this 73-year-old would probably prefer to sit quietly on their own with a nice slice of cake and a cup of tea; definitely no party for this septuagenarian.

That the NHS didn’t collapse at the height of the second peak of COVID, when thousands of patients a day were being admitted to hospital with COVID-19, speaks volumes of the resilience and dedication of staff.  This was an incredible achievement for a service that entered the pandemic understaffed and underfunded, with growing waiting lists, despite the best efforts of its head, Sir Simon Stevens, who leaves this month.

The consequences of a stretched service having to pivot to deal with a fatal, easily transmissible infectious disease are: a mounting wave of patient need, including from people who stayed away to protect the NHS; a profound rupture in relationships between patients and the NHS, particularly as people have found it hard to see their GPs; and warnings that staff in the service is traumatised and exhausted.

Now, as the NHS emerges from its pandemic footing, reopens and seeks to build back better, we urge it to adopt true patient partnership in everything it does. We’re concerned, however, that the latest set of NHS reforms are devoid of a role for patients. While the new arrangements will help the system work in a smoother and more integrated way, they do nothing to remedy the NHS’s culture of not listening to or valuing what patients tell it. A failure to listen to patients is a constant feature of NHS safety scandals; involving patients is an effective way of ensuring patient safety and will help repair the rupture between the NHS and patients.

To clear the growing waiting lists, the NHS will have to deliver activity more quickly than patients present with new needs: the NHS was proving unable to do this before the pandemic. To be able to do this, it’ll need adequate resources including staff and an improved funding settlement.

If I could give the NHS a gift, then it would be a promise from other parts of the UK’s institutional infrastructure to actively support the health and wellbeing of the UK. There is far more to health than just the NHS, and no strategy that relies on the NHS solely will be able to deliver improved population health. The exposure by the pandemic of health inequalities shows that many of the causes of ill health lie upstream of the NHS, even if it is the NHS that has to deal with the consequences.

And would also wish that the NHS and all governmental departments developing health policy do so in partnership with patients.

Rachel Power, Chief Executive, the Patients Association

5th July 2021