NHS at 70: Celebrating decades of free care for all

Sunderland Royal Infirmary Extensions.
Sunderland Royal Infirmary Extensions.

Seventy years ago life in Britain was a very different place. Homelessness was rife, millions lived in squalor, education was poor, unemployment was high and the country was plagued by ill health.

The country had also been ravaged by the Second World War and was struggling with continued austerity measures.

Nurses at South Shields General Hospital in 1955.

Nurses at South Shields General Hospital in 1955.

It was in dire need of support and economist William Beveridge’s proposals for a new welfare state to tackle the ‘Five Giants’ were met with great enthusiasm by the public and politicians alike.

The political climate was shifting too, and despite leading Britain to victory, Winston Churchill and his Conservative government lost by a landslide in the historic 1945 general election to the Labour party, led by Clement Attlee.

The war had brought free healthcare to all and in light of Beveridge’s welfare report the general public wanted it to continue, as well as the other social reforms proposed by Beveridge, and trusted Attlee’s Labour party, and his Health Secretary, Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan, in delivering a new welfare 
state.

The idea for a national health care service was simple yet wildly ambitious – free, universal and comprehensive healthcare for all at the point of delivery. Rich or poor, man or woman, young or old – the NHS would bring good healthcare to every person in the country.

Through taxation, it was planned to group hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians and dentists together for the first time as part of a nationwide nationalisation. But his dream was not without its opponents though and Bevan was met with fierce opposition by the British Medical Association and doctors and dentists who wanted to continue charging privately per patient instead of receiving a Government salary.

Their threats to boycott the NHS continued as late as February 1948.

However, Bevan’s National Health Service Act passed in 1946 and officially came into force on July 5, 1948 at healthcare centres across the country.

Park Hospital in Manchester would play host to the symbolic nationwide opening of the NHS and become the inaugural site of the first NHS hospital in the UK. On that momentous day nurses formed a welcome line for the father of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan, as he was given the keys to officially open Park Hospital and the NHS.

At 13 years old, Sylvia Diggory (nee Beckingham) became the first ever NHS patient.

Diggory later recalled: “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, and a day I would remember for the rest of my life. And of course, he was right.”

And Bevan’s NHS was a milestone moment as it was the biggest act of social welfare reform the country had ever seen.

By 1950, 17 million people across the UK receive NHS provided glasses and nine million were given false teeth. Many killer diseases like TB, Polio, and Diphtheria were also wiped out.

Years later and the NHS has been at the forefront of major medical, scientific, clinical, technological and workforce advances and breakthroughs.

It is one of the biggest employers in the world, employing 1.5million people, treating one million patients every 36 hours.

And although it may have changed since Bevan’s original blueprint for a national health service, it still delivers the same exceptional, universal, free healthcare for all.