Former Conservative Chancelleor Nigel Lawson is said to have declared that the National Health Service is the closest thing the British have to a religion, a statement which seems to be proved truer by the day by the Trades Union Congress.

Today is apparently the 63rd "birthday" of the NHS and the TUC is marking this glorious event with celebrations up and down the country.

Although thankfully the TUC has yet to institute a new dating system beginning with the birth of Our Saviour, the language used by the union appears to be increasingly religious and fanatical.

Today we are invited by the TUC to, in their own words, "celebrate the UK's favourite institution", by which they do not mean the monarchy, the FA Cup, English Heritage, Last Night of the Proms, scones, tea or curry. More laughably we are also encouraged to "spread the word" about our fears for this beloved institution's future.

Perhaps even more absurdly (it's a close one), earlier this year the TUC was urging the British people to "light a candle for the NHS" during its "darkest hour" (a reference to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's reforms).

Whether people did "stand vigil for the NHS" as the TUC asked I do not know, but I for one did not see a proliferation of these small flames of hope during the third reading of Andrew Lansley's Health and Social Care Bill.

Such absurd language can be laughed at easily enough but there are signs that there are some poor folk who have ingested this stuff whole and have become true believers.

At a recent open air classical concert in the grounds of Barking Abbey music lovers found themselves being harassed by dumpy middle aged ladies of the kind often seen at Labour Party conferences. They were armed with clipboards and an apparently unlimited number of pens.

When the concert was over these ladies were virtually blocking the exits and were, with fanatical zeal, pushing pens into the hands of the bewildered while begging them to sign a petition to save the A&E and maternity services at King Georges Hospital in Ilford.

This is the same King Georges Hospital which has received somewhat mixed reviews from patients.

While some patients praised the hospital as being "very good" with "polite and helpful" staff, there were not a few comments condemning the treatment they or their relatives received from the hospital.

One unhappy customer said, "Consultant was dismissive and spoke to the nurse rather than to me. I left with very little information and a feeling that I was not being taken seriously."

Another complained "Don't be fooled by there low counts of MRSA, its only low because they send there patients home or to another hospital to keep there figures low. All staff need a course in how to wash their hands."

While a third gave his story, "The staff didn't help with my Father at all. They did not realise he has MS even though it is in his notes. They left him with a temperature and did nothing until I informed them that he had a temperature."

"They did not treat him with any respect and then had the cheek to criticise me for leaving for an appointment of my own. I left him in thier care, but care is not what he recieved. Disgusting."

The third unhappy patient also gave his views on "What could have been improved" at the hospital, "Being seen on time. Staff being helpful. Staff doing thier job. Staff not being lazy. Staff not criticizing patients carers. Staff not neglecting patients. Staff not using there mobile phones while on duty".

While these comments reveal the problems in the education system they also show that when it comes to the NHS, not everyone is a believer.

Herein lies the chief problem of the NHS. In principle it is not a bad thing to have a healthcare system "free at the point of use" and in practice the NHS can do some pretty good work. I myself had some excellent treatment quite a few years ago with a very polite and well dressed Orthodontist.

However for every story of the perfect op there is another of neglect and incompetence and it is the latter that seem to attach themselves to the elderly in particular.

One cannot help but feel sometimes that NHS hospitals have become the place where the elderly go to die, very often of something different to what they had when they first went in. It is perhaps the logical conclusion of the "cradle to grave" ideal that the NHS was created with, but that does not make it any less disturbing.

A quick look at survival rates for diseases such as cancer, when compared with the same figures for other developed nations should also be considered reason to question the claim the NHS has to being Britain's "favourite institution".

None of the problems of the NHS will be solved by holding "candlelight vigils" or by treating it as a sacred cow which cannot be touched and from which all blessings of health and long life flow. Serious and hard headed reforms are needed if this institution which costs every man, woman and child close to £2,000 a year, is to come anywhere near being value for money.

It is however very difficult to reform an organisation that despite numerous, well documented failings is surrounded by an aura of untouchable sacredness and has supporters of such uncompromising faith. It's therefore no surprise that it is the NHS rather than the Church of England that has become Britain's answer to the Catholic Church.