It was early July and there I was, stewing on a beanbag in the 30-degree London melting pot. I had rushed home after the accumulating excitement of Pride because of a tummy bug and I was feeling deflated. Just as the parade was about to come round thecorner! I waited for an hour!
In the throes of my pity party, an antiquated film appeared on the TV that immediately piqued my interest. Smiling nurses swanned around in pixellated black and white looking after bandaged limbs with aplomb. It was a documentary on the NHS.
70 years! Seventy long, happy years of free public healthcare for the United Kingdom. I only had limited knowledge of the goings-on of the NHS, from what I had read or heard in passionate conversations held across the dinner table. Generally, fingers were pointed at the Conservative party for their expenditure cuts and low morale circling the public health service due to workers being overworked and underpaid. I knew of its current troubles but not of its origins.
When was it started? Who’s idea was it? Was the British government the first to nationalise healthcare? Until this very point, watching these images flitter on TV, I had never given it much thought. So, readers, this is a brief article for anyone like me who is interested in our NHS but doesn’t want to troll through boring dense text to find the information.
After World War 2, the United Kingdom was climbing out of the proverbial mud following a great victory over the Axis. A time to celebrate, rejuvenate and to pull out that infamous British grit. The general election of 1945 swept in the Labour Party and in its ranks was Aneurin Bevan as Health Minister. He was the most socialist member of the most socialist cabinet Britain had ever had and in the party’s manifesto was a revolutionary new plan to nationalise healthcare.
They day was July 5th, the year 1948 – the NHS was open for business. Instantaneously crowned the countries third biggest employer and with 90% of the population signed up in under two weeks, you could say it was a hit.
The NHS was based on three fundamental core principles:
- Free at the point of use
- Based on clinical need
- Cater for everyone
And that it did. So much so it played a huge part in bridging the social gap and driving social change. Poorer people who ordinarily couldn’t afford hearing aids and glasses were given the gift of hearing and sight. The knock on effect of which would narrow the gap between the rich and the poor as they now had access to similar healthcare!
With all of this positive news and newfound health, there had to be a downside (such is life). In the NHS’s case, this came in the form of skyrocketing costs that became unmanageable. The government had to do something – their light bulb moment being to charge patients for dentistry, spectacles and prescriptions. This, of course went against the first aforementioned core value of the NHS and after just 3 years of opening, Bevan subsequently quit the government in protest. The next challenge would be the understaffing crisis. Pushing into the early 1950’s the NHS was short of 50,000 nurses and so looked to ‘import’ medical staff from overseas – the majority of which from Irish and Caribbean descent.
Thankfully however, the country was in the midst of a post-war economic boom, fondly called the long boom. Here, ravaged nations all over the world experienced high and sustained growth coupled with full employment (until the disastrous decade of the 70’s). For the UK, the national income was partly pumped into hospital and technical equipment, antibiotics and vaccinations. These innovations would cure millions of people who would have ordinarily joined the congregation of the dead rapidly after contracting any disease. The 1960’s and 70’s brought an era of major medical breakthroughs as the NHS became a leader in organ transplantation and the public healthcare service would be put on a pedestal for being the leader in providing world-class care.
Since then, the NHS has been declared the best healthcare system in the world when compared to 11 other wealthy countries. It produced the world’s first test tube baby, pushed AIDs awareness and saved thousands of lives by introducing the organ donor list.
Thank you NHS, I’m proud to be British.