DISCUSSIONS about the pros and cons of the NHS are seriously limited by the quasi-religious quality it appears to embody. No politician or political leader, it seems, feels able to do anything but bend the knee, talk about “our NHS” as if it were a family member, and throw ever more money at it.

Nurses have been talked about as “angels” for decades. When the “obscene” amount of money football players get is discussed on radio, the comparison used is not with the wages of secretaries, binmen, cleaners or posties, but always nurses.

The sanctification of the NHS is all the more interesting given the infrequency of its use for most people. Unlike the everyday issue of education for parents, or of transport for most of us and the general issue of unemployment – something that perhaps affects us more than anything else – our trips to the doctor are rare, our trips to hospital, generally speaking, are rarer still.

Discussing the issue on Radio 4's Moral Maze, presenter Michael Burke noted that the political worshipping of the NHS was curious given its poor showing when compared with other, comparable services across the world. Measured in terms of patient outcomes, which one would consider to be the point, we find that with most forms of cancer, strokes or heart attacks, the chances of survival are worse in the UK than elsewhere. Infant mortality rates are higher here as are the chances of unnecessarily death in hospital.

The NHS is the biggest employer in Europe and yet has, proportionately, the lowest number of doctors in the EU. Other countries in Europe have a mix of public and private health care, helped by insurance. Three quarters of the German health service, for example, is paid by the state, the rest is private and yet they manage to treat everyone, including the unemployed, and have better health outcomes.

The NHS is not a sacred cow because of its actual service but because of what it represents politically and morally. It is one of the few institutions that embodies a sense of national pride and togetherness. It has a sense of history and crucially, it is universal, giving us a collective sense, a feeling that at least here, with this institution we are all in it together.

But this is a burden no service can withstand. Indeed, while sanctified it is unlikely the record of the NHS will improve. The sense of universality, of togetherness is of vital importance and can come from a variety of sources. It’s time for our political leaders to stop hiding behind the NHS and develop a new politics of universality and national pride, and a new sense of commonality that can replace our current obsession with diversity and difference