People's History of the NHS

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  • 19
  • DEC

Charity and the NHS Choir

by George Gosling

The 2015 Christmas No.1 single was ‘A Bridge Over You’, a medley of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘A Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’. It was sung by the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS hospital trust choir when they were featured on a BBC TV show with celebrity choirmaster Gareth Malone, but revived by the choir a couple of years later as a seasonal charity single.

The attention it received in the press was largely for its denying the chart top spot to Justin Bieber, who took to twitter to encourage his fans to buy the rival single. The Guardian noted the Canadian popstar had previously spoken out in favour of state healthcare, saying of Americans in a Rolling Stone interview: ‘You guys are evil’ for the financial worries associated with healthcare in the US. There were occasional comments about solidarity with the junior doctors, who had just postponed a national strike and support for the financial security it guarantees in times of illness. However, no comment was made about the discrepancy between the Christmas No.1 campaign’s rallying cry and where the money actually went.

The choir ditched their parochial name and branded themselves the NHS Choir, emphasising the point that buying the single was a way of showing appreciation for all those working over the holidays to keep the health service going. Yet the money raised did not go to the NHS. It was split between a number of health-related charities, including Mind and Carers UK. Even at the end of a year when the financial crisis in the NHS had never been far from the headlines, the NHS itself was not the recipient of the funds raised. The Lewisham and Greenwich choir may well have considered raising funds for their own hospital trust, but it would likely never have crossed their minds that the NHS Choir might raise funds for the NHS itself.

This provoked no comment because it is a fundamental and generally unspoken code underpinning the relationship between the British people and the NHS. Not only is it right to fund health services collectively, but any fundraising appeal must be separated from the routine delivery of healthcare if it is to be thought of as proper. Indeed, this has been the standard from the beginning of the health service nearly seven decades ago.

Following the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948, Aneurin Bevan gathered together representatives of the new regional hospital boards and gave them a stern warning. As NHS hospitals they were no longer to appeal for funds or ask for donations, to do so would be “improper”. There were to be no more fundraising advertisements in local newspapers, appeals on the radio or letters sent out requesting donations. Patients should no longer be encouraged to join contributory schemes. Collecting boxes were to be brought in from railway stations and public houses up and down the country. No more flag days, fetes or bazaars.

This is not to say that charity and voluntarism had no part in the story of the NHS over the following decades. Indeed, the history of the NHS would have been very different if it did not feature an army of volunteers. Gifts have also been import, as has raising money to provide the latest medical equipment and bedside lockers alike. And Christmas has always been a time of charity and community, in the NHS as elsewhere. Yet there are limits to that charity, on which the proper place of both citizen and state rests.

So, while the NHS Choir was new – never before had there been a Christmas No.1 in support of the NHS – it was also deeply traditional. Traditional because it echoed a long lineage of NHS fundraising, but also traditional because it knew its place.

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