Doctor, Doctor: In 2017, one million patients used the NHS every 36 hours.

The NHS was founded in the spirit of post-war optimism and rebuilding, over seven decades ago. Ever since then, health care has been free for all UK citizens. How did this happen?

  • What is the NHS exactly?

    It is the UK’s free health care service, which was founded over 70 years ago on 5 July 1948. It is entirely funded by the Government. That is why, if you see a doctor or you need an operation, you do not have to pay any fees.

    Since it was founded, by the Labour Health Minister Nye Bevan, the UK’s health has dramatically improved. Infant mortality is down. Diseases like polio have all but disappeared. Life expectancy has risen.

    Basically, it’s partly thanks to the NHS that you will, hopefully, celebrate your 70th birthday one day too!

  • Who’s this Nye Bevan character?

    His full name was actually Aneurin Bevan (he was Welsh), but he was nicknamed Nye.

    Let’s wind back to 1945. World War Two is over, but food is still being rationed. Labour has just won a landslide general election, much to everyone’s surprise — including the party’s leader, Clement Attlee.

    Most politicians agree that health care in the UK is a mess. It is erratically provided by charities and volunteer hospitals. People are charged to see a doctor, which means that poor families are often driven into debt just to stay alive.

    Enter Nye Bevan. He presents a radical new plan to nationalise all of the UK’s hospitals. He suggests that they are funded from the national budget, rather than local services. Eventually, after much negotiation, his plan is accepted.

  • Then what happened?

    Three years later, the NHS was born. Health care became free at the point of use, including seeing dentists, pharmacists and opticians. On 5 July, Bevan visited Park Hospital in Manchester (now Trafford General Hospital). He said the UK now had “the moral leadership of the world”.

    He spoke to the first patient, 13-year-old Sylvia Diggory, who had acute nephritis. Later, she remembered him telling her that it was “a milestone in history — the most civilised step any country had ever taken”.

  • Is that true?

    It is true that it was the first system of its kind in the world. These days, most developed countries have free, universal health care. (The most notable exception is the United States.)

  • How has it changed since?

    Unsurprisingly, the NHS has grown bigger. It now employs 115,000 doctors, ten times as many as in 1948. The number of nurses has trebled to 217,000, and their jobs have become more specialised.

    In fact, the NHS has grown so much that it is the fifth-largest employer in the world.

  • Can we afford it?

    Its budget is 12 times bigger than it was when it was founded, even once you adjust for inflation. And it’s set to grow — in June 2018, the Government said it would spend £20 billion extra on the NHS each year, for the next five years, as a 50th “birthday present”.

    The NHS budget has always been a major political issue. Bevan resigned from government in April 1951, in protest at the introduction of charges for dentures, spectacles and prescriptions. In 1997, Tony Blair won a landslide election for Labour after telling voters they had “24 hours to save the NHS”.

  • How long will it last?

    It is impossible to know for sure. Health care challenges have also changed over the last 70 years. Most simple diseases can be cured, and complex diseases, like cancer, have far higher survival rates. In other words, people live longer and the NHS spends more time managing incurable conditions, like dementia. Some are calling for it to be integrated more closely with social care.

    However, it is unlikely to disappear any time soon: one poll shows that, despite scandals, 54% of Britons are proud of the NHS. It is more popular than British history, the Army and the royal family. Bevan would be pleased.

You Decide

  1. Will the NHS still exist in another 70 years?


  1. Choose one of the milestones mentioned in the timeline at the top of this article. Research the impact that it had on Britain and health care, and produce a short, clear presentation about it for your class.

Word Watch

Infant mortality
In 1948, around 36 babies died out of every 1,000 born. In 2016, that number was around four.
Life expectancy
In 1948, life expectancy was 65.9 years for men, and 70.3 for women. Now it is 79.5 and 83.1, respectively.
Acute nephritis
Kidney inflammation.
According to research by BBC News.
£20 billion
This amounts to a budget increase of around 3.4% per year. Prime Minister Theresa May said it would be funded by a “Brexit dividend” (the money saved by leaving the EU). However, most economists agree that this dividend will not increase for several years. The NHS’s “birthday present” will most likely be funded, at least in part, by tax increases.
From 1952, prescriptions cost patients one shilling (five pence). Now, they cost £8.80 for patients in England. They are free for patients in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
For Mintel’s 2018 British Lifestyles report.
For example, an inquiry last week found that over 450 patients had their lives shortened by powerful drugs at Gosport War Memorial Hospital over 12 years.

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