Today marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the NHS. It means that 75 years ago today, in 1948, Britain’s first majority Labor government led by Clement Attlee created a national health service as the cornerstone of its plans for a comprehensive welfare state.
The National Health Service Act, which came into force on July 5, 1948, brought together a wide range of medical services into a single organization, including hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians, and dentists. Led through its common stages by the first health minister Aneurin Bevan, the act read: “An act to provide for the establishment of a comprehensive health service for England and Wales, and for purposes connected therewith.”
The first universal healthcare system available to all, free at the point of delivery, was born.
Today the NHS treats over a million people a day in England. It stays at the forefront of advances in medicine and four in five say they are prouder to be British.
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But while the NHS is still much loved, there will be a grim feeling when NHS staff in their uniforms arrive at Westminster Abbey this morning.
The public remains deeply dissatisfied with the state of the health service; indeed, according to King’s Fund researchers, the public gave the NHS its worst rating since records began 40 years ago. In all, just 29 per cent said they were satisfied with the NHS in 2022, with waiting times and staff shortages being the main concerns. That’s seven points down from the previous year and a drop from the 2010 high of 70 percent satisfaction.
Also undermining today’s festivities is further research from the King’s Fund exposing how Britain’s healthcare system far underperforms almost all its peers. Comparing 19 major nations, the expert group found the NHS was the second worst of all examined for saving lives. The UK was found to be the worst at saving stroke victims and second worst at saving heart attack sufferers, while “significantly underperforming” on cancer and life expectancy.
Still, a survey carried out in May last year found that the health service tops the list of things people think are the best in Britain. It means that, despite the alarm bells ringing about the state of the health service, the famous saying attributed to Aneurin Bevan that “the NHS will last as long as there are people with faith left to fight for it” stands firm.
The government work plan
Last week the government announced a plan to tackle some of the bleakest indicators in the NHS, starting with the workforce. The NHS workforce plan, timed to coincide with comments on the health service’s 75th anniversary, sees ministers commit to independently verified forecasts for the number of doctors, nurses and other professionals needed to maintain the workforce over the next few years. next five to fifteen years. Commissioning Health Education England to review trends in the regulated health and social care workforce, health secretary Steve Barclay has now set aside £2.4 billion over five years for the scheme. The prime minister insists that the strategy has established the “biggest expansion in skills and workforce in the history of the NHS”.
Furthermore, the government argues that it is on track to meet its target of 50,000 more nurses by the end of March 2024. This is despite warnings from the health and social care committee, led by Conservative MP Steve Brine, suggesting the demand for nurses. it is increasing much faster than supply. In September 2022, there were 133,450 vacancies on the NHS in England, of which 47,500 were for nurses.
The government also insists that the NHS has recently faced the most significant pressures in its 75-year history, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the worst winter pressures in a generation last year and, most recently, inflation and the cost of living. crisis. Certainly the trauma caused by Covid on the NHS and its staff is still having a deleterious effect. The pandemic hit Britain’s health service at colossal cost, causing systems to be disrupted and routine procedures to be cancelled.
But critics say the problems have been compounded by ministerial mismanagement.
David Cameron’s 2010 election campaign sported banners promising to ‘cut the deficit, not the NHS’, and a key aspect of how austerity was implemented for much of the 2010s was a focus on protecting funding for the daily running costs of the NHS. However, for much of the decade, the protection of NHS services was just a protection relative to the cuts faced by other public services, without increasing funding in line with historical growth in NHS spending or demand for services. Cameron decided to cut the annual NHS budget increases from 3.6% of the job to an average of just 1.5%.
In testimony at the official Covid-19 inquiry, David Cameron defended decisions made on NHS funding. “Your healthcare system is only as strong as your economy: one pays for the other,” he said. But Jeremy Hunt, health secretary from 2012 to 2018 and chancellor today, told the british medical journal in 2021 that his decisions as health secretary had negatively affected the capacity of the NHS and therefore the UK’s preparedness for the pandemic.
Furthermore, a 2022 King’s Fund document explained how a “decade of neglect” by successive Conservative administrations has weakened the NHS. “The sporadic injections of cash during the austerity years after 2010 were intended, at best, to cover the daily running costs (of the service). This dearth of long-term investment has led to a health and care system crippled by understaffing and equipment and dilapidated buildings. These critical challenges have been obvious for years,” King’s Fund chief executive Richard Murray said at the time.
The cost of living crisis and rampant inflation have also sparked a round of strikes that have intermittently paralyzed the NHS. The Royal College of Nursing started the current dispute after it announced its intention to vote members into industrial action for the first time in its 106-year history on October 6, 2022. The first strike began on December 15 of the year past and the employment action remains unresolved. . Since then, the nurses have been followed by ambulance workers and junior doctors on strike, and later this month, from 7am on Thursday, July 13 to 7am.
Medical professionals have consistently voted against the government’s offer of 5 per cent plus an unconsolidated payment in England. Young doctors, for example, in England want a 35% pay increase to make up for what they estimate will be a 26% cut in their income in real terms since 2008-09, plus inflation.
The latest survey conducted by ipsos between January and June shows roughly two-thirds of public support for striking nurses, ambulance workers and junior doctors, despite the growing number of appointments and operations that had to be cancelled. It compares with a poll that showed 48 percent of the public said they supported teachers in their strikes in June. Likewise, only 36 percent supported airline workers, railway workers, and border force personnel, while 35 percent supported university professors, 34 percent officials, and 28 percent driving instructors. .
The figures are arguably a testament to the special place the NHS occupies in the British public consciousness.
Looking to the future
Since 1948, the NHS has tended to evolve and adapt to meet the needs of each successive generation. Today, the NHS touts its record as a leader in the adoption of innovative medicines, with industry data showing there are five treatments available in England for every four in Europe, as well as almost a third more cancer drugs.
It is increasingly said that embracing innovation and technology is critical to enabling the NHS model to deliver better results for our growing population. And last week, Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of England’s NHS, said more NHS artificial intelligence (AI) applications are “on the horizon” in a bid to free up doctors’ time and better support the patients. Rishi Sunak has said the use of robot receptionists will be used to free up NHS staff under a 15-year workforce strategy to build a “future-proof” service.
In a speech at NHS ConfedExpo, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting called for technology to be upgraded to prevent the health service “being held back by creaky, outdated technology”. He added that AI “can rule out scans without cancer in seconds” and can “help interpret chest X-rays” to save radiologists time, but the technology has yet to be adopted or rolled out across the NHS.
Over its 75-year history, the NHS has been run by Conservative governments for 48 of them. But in current polls, Labor is on track to win the next election and therefore the future of the NHS will be in the hands of Sir Keir Starmer and Streeting. The party continues to promote its plan to raise £1.6bn a year from non-Dom tax breaks to spend on training and the NHS workforce.
But with one of the party’s “missions” committing Labor to “building a future-fit NHS”, voters will expect Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting to put forward more proposals in the run-up to the next election.