Despite the first case of the novel coronavirus only being reported to the WHO at the end of December 2019, humanities and social science scholars have been quick to subject local, national and international responses to COVID-19 to critique. Through television and radio, blogs, social media and other outlets, historians in particular have situated the ongoing outbreak in relation to previous epidemics and historicised cultural and political responses. This paper furthers these historical considerations of the current pandemic by examining the way the National Health Service (NHS) and discourses of risk have figured in public and policy responses. It suggests that appeals to protect the NHS are based on longer-term anxieties about the service’s capacity to care and endure in the face of growing demand, as well as building on the attachment that has developed as a result of this persistence in the face of existential threats. Similarly, the position of elderly, vulnerable and “at risk” patients relates to complex histories in which their place in social and medical hierarchies have been ambiguous. It thus argues that the ways in which time appears as both a threat and a possibility of management in the current crisis form part of a longer trajectory of political and cultural thinking.