Great Britain

The radical ideas that gave birth to the NHS

On July 5, 1948, from what is now Trafford general hospital, Manchester, the then health minister in Clement Attlee’s post war Labour government, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, announced the founding of the National Health Service.

The NHS was the first free at the point of entry health care service to be introduced by a Western democratic country.

With that announcement all aspects of health provision became the responsibility of the government, bringing together for the first time, hospitals consultants, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians and dentists.

It was a bold and radical move which had its fair share of detractors. The Tory party, doctors and dentists were all against the idea of the NHS, with doctors threatening to boycott the service.

Now, with its ‘cradle to the grave’ role firmly established as a part of all our lives, the NHS is the most cherished, respected and venerated of all our institutions. There have been numerous changes to the NHS over the decades, but the three founding principles remain:

Free at the point of use

Available to everyone

Paid for from general taxation

A form of universal health care system for the UK had been talked about for decades. Prior to the founding of the NHS hospitals were either run by local authorities or were charities. The casualties of the second world war had brought the system to near collapse, and it was the Beveridge Report, which was presented to parliament in 1942 by Sir William Beveridge as a blueprint to rid Britain of what Beveridge described as the ‘five giants on the road to reconstruction’ - want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness, which launched the Welfare State and the NHS.

A White Paper introduced by the war time coalition government in support of the formation of a National Health Service was passed by MPs in 1944, paving the way for Attlee’s Labour Government, which had won the 1946 General Election, to bring in the National Health Care Act 1946, paving the way to Nye Bevan’s Trafford hospital announcement two years later.

The first person to receive treatment under the newly formed NHS was 13-year-old Sylvia Diggory, who was in hospital suffering from a potentially fatal liver condition.

Recalling her meeting with Nye Bevan, Syliva said: “Mr Bevan asked me if I understood the significance of the occasion and told me that it was a milestone in history – the most civilised step any country had ever taken. I had earwigged at adults’ conversations and I knew this was a great change that was coming about and that most people could hardly believe this was happening.”

Possibly with Sylvia in mind, Bevan himself said: “No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”

Nye Bevan died of cancer in 1960, with the British Medical Journal describing him as the greatest health minister Britain had ever had.

Over the past 70 years the NHS has done more than just cure people. There have been vigorous campaigns to raise people’s awareness on health issues. One of the earliest was urging people to give up smoking following research by Sir Richard Doll who discovered the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. During the course of his study Sir Richard gave up smoking and died aged 92.

Other health campaigns which the NHS has taken the lead on include the AIDS awareness campaign on the mid 1980s and the current drive to combat obesity and diabetes.

Now, seventy years on, and the vast majority of us would have been born, and at some point in our lives, treated by the NHS. There is universal recognition that, while the NHS isn’t perfect, it is our NHS and it is there when we need it most.

With the NHS under more pressure than at any time in the past 70 years it will be up to us, the British public to decide if the NHS gets to 100, but as Nye Bevan said: “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with faith to fight for it.”

So keep the faith and raise a glass to the NHS and all its hard working and dedicated staff and wish this great institution a happy 70th birthday.

Did you know: The first Cabinet minister to be admitted to an NHS hospital was the then prime minister Clement Attlee, who spent time at St Mary’s Paddington with a foot complaint.

We Love the NHS

One Show presenter Alex Jones earlier this year following the need to visit her local hospital twice in one week due to an unspecified emergency.

"The NHS are truly brilliant, and we should all be so grateful to have such a remarkable service. Found ourselves in hospital twice this week. All is fine but the standard of care from paramedics, nurses and doctors had been second to none. A huge, heartfelt thank you x."

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