I often think that one of Britain’s most impressive post-war achievements is surely the establishment of the National Health Service. The NHS came into being in July 1948, during Clement Atlee’s Labour Government, thanks in great part to the determination of health minister Aneurin (‘Nye’) Bevan.
The idea for the health service had been outlined, along with various other ideas for a welfare state in the Beveridge report of 1942. This was a report by Sir William Beveridge which looked into the ways that Britain could be totally reconstructed after the war (called the ‘Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services’). It was in this report that Beveridge identified what he called the ‘Five Giant Evils’ the government had to fight: these were ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness’.
The NHS was free for all citizens and was to be funded by the state through taxation and without any creation of an insurance industry. It was not an idea many people, including doctors, were happy with. Now — 68 years later — many people are still not happy with it.
One reason, of course, is that it costs a lot of money and is said to now be unaffordable. The Tory government’s attempts to reform the NHS have so far been controversial with critics accusing it of dismantling and privatising bits of the system through sneaky outsourcing. Others accuse the government of encouraging measures that would undermine staff morale (ending nursing bursaries, increasing working hours for junior doctors) and thus destroy a very important component of this healthcare system.
Yet many people support the government’s plans and say that the NHS is not good enough: over staffed and not up to standard.
Personally I am in awe of the NHS. While I, and others like me, may grumble about long waiting times and not enough time with doctors or nurses, we all realise what an amazing system this is and above all that it is the manifestation of a truly humane and nobel idea. What I am constantly astonished by is the ethos of compassion that prevails within the system. Despite occasional (often sensational) stories of carelessness or neglect, the main story of the NHS is one of caring.
The sort of compassion that I have seen in nursing staff in many different NHS hospitals, I have never seen in any private hospital in England. Perhaps this is because the staff in private hospitals don’t have the same sort of sense of ownership or mission that NHS staff do. I remember once when I was with a relative in a private hospital, the nurse on the ward didn’t even know where anything (including medical equipment) was kept; the reason: she was hired for the day — through an agency. But the level of kindness and compassion I have seen in NHS nursing staff is truly humbling.
The NHS and whether it is worth sustaining is something that people in the UK are becoming quite divided over and it’s something people need to know more about. In this regard The Guardian newspaper has produced impressive and timely series titled ‘This is the NHS’, which highlights the stories and issues of the system.
But what is always worth remembering is that is that the creation and functioning of a health system like the NHS is a tremendous achievement and should not be cancelled and dismantled in haste. Is it affordable? Well it is if we decide that it is; if a society decides that something is important and is a priority — then its funding is made a priority.