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Transatlantic Blog

The NHS: Lie or we’ll fine you

The former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson once said that “the NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion” – but as a new story shows, it is a religion that forces people to break the Ten Commandments. Certain British citizens must lie to the government or face a punishing fine for telling the truth.

One person to suffer this fate is a domestic abuse survivor and single parent who did not want to deceive the authorities.

An individual named “VG” shared the unusual story with the UK Guardian.

After “VG” left an abusive relationship, the government designated the applicant mentally and/or physically unable to work and enrolled the individual in the universal credit program.

The UK government announced that universal credit would replace six government benefit programs a full decade ago. The new system would simplify benefits by making a deposit directly into low-income citizens’ bank accounts. These benefits would shrink as income increases, rather than disappearing all at once, so as not to discourage recipients from seeking work.

The government began introducing universal credit in 2013 gradually – so gradually that other government agencies have yet to take notice. One of these is the National Health Service, often touted as “the world’s best health service.”  

The single-payer healthcare system still has no box for universal credit recipients to check when they apply for free healthcare or prescriptions. The government tells them to apply as a “jobseeker” with low earnings.

But “VG” says this would be lying. She isn’t seeking a job, and she doesn’t want to lie to the government – even if the government insists on it.

“I am not prepared to make false statements,” she writes, “so instead I’ve written universal credit on the forms.”

To reward her honesty, the NHS slapped her with a fine of  £172.70 ($227.76 U.S.).

The UK government’s had a fib-or-fine policy for years, and British truthtellers have paid the price.

The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) has had six years to update the NHS paperwork for universal credit recipients. The fix requires nothing more than the appropriate verbiage next to a square on a page. Instead, the NHSBSA “instructs dental and pharmacy staff to ensure that universal-credit claimants tick the [jobseekers’] allowance box until the form is updated,” writes Guardian advice columnist Anna Tims.

“Patients who are not informed or, like you, are unwilling to sign a false claim, face fines of up to £100 plus the treatment or prescription charge,” writes Tims. “Another £50 is added if they don’t pay within 28 days, hence your latest bill.”

Some may dismiss “VG” as overly scrupulous, but the Bible presents lying as a matter of top importance. The Ten Commandments state, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16). The New Testament says the devil is “the father of lies” (St. John 8:44), and teaches that liars will spend eternity alongside “murderers” and “sorcerers” in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:8).

Lying is, in other words, no small issue for believing Christians. They should not be forced to violate their conscience by a government that requires them to mislead ministers, or else.

The saga faintly echoes an unforgettable Amnesty International advertisement which appeared in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. It printed a simple, black square at the top of the full-page ad, next to the headline: “This square is white. By the time you reach the bottom of the page you’ll agree or you’ll be dead.” It proceeded to describe the way totalitarians regimes tortured dissidents, in graphic detail.

Clearly, the NHS brouhaha does not reach that level of malice or intensity. However, it demands people say things that are objectively false, and it inflicts fines on people who are least able to afford them if they dare to tell the truth.

Unlike the authoritarian squads of the past (and present), the government does not harm honest citizens intentionally but out of its own bureaucratic incompetence and nonfeasance.

One might be tempted to ask, if a national healthcare system can’t change a form, how can it care for millions of patients?

This incompetence may explain why, in Western Europe, the people most likely to accept bribes work in government-run healthcare system.

The paperwork impasse presents another reason people of faith should oppose government-run healthcare. The NHS should not punish Christians who dissent from the English people’s new religion.

(Photo credit: Gordon Joly. This photo has been cropped and modified. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.