The History of the NHS

Here at W12 Conferences we’ve never been prouder to be a part of the National Health Service. All of our surplus funds go to the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust which means we get to play our small part in the development of front-line staff including doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants. While most of the world is in lockdown, we thought we’d take some time to reflect on the amazing institution that is the NHS and to look back on where it all began…

In the first few months of 1948, every household received a pamphlet from the Government which brought news that would change the fortunes of millions of people. The leaflet announced the arrival of the newly formed National Health Service and explained to the nation what the idea was behind this revolutionary healthcare system. Amongst information on how to sign up for the service, the flyer explained:

It will provide you with all medical, dental and nursing care. Everyone — rich or poor, man, woman or child — can use it or any part of it. There are no charges, except for a few special items. There are no insurance qualifications. But it is not a “charity”. You are all paying for it, mainly as taxpayers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of illness.

The NHS was founded on the core principles that the service should meet the needs of everyone, be free at source (paid for through taxation), that treatment should be based on clinical need and nothing else and that the service should be used responsibly.

It was on the 5th July 1948 that the NHS was officially born. The moment was marked when Aneurin Bevan, the then Minister of Health, visited Park Hospital in Manchester to see 13-year-old Sylvia Diggory (nee Beckingham), the NHS’s first patient.

The launch of the NHS was the culmination of decades of discussions and debate on how best to serve the medical needs of the UK. For the first half of the 20th century the healthcare system had been moving towards a more inclusive structure, but it wasn’t until Clement Atlee’s post-war Labour government took to power, that the plans finally became a reality. Before this, people were generally expected to pay for their medical treatment – the money could be sourced from personal income, insurance pay outs or, for those with no means to pay, some regions ran charity hospitals. There were also some hospitals that served the local rate payers in the immediate community, but often the healthcare didn’t extend to other dependent members of their families.

The system was far from unified – or fair – and throughout the 1920s and 30s many doctors, ministers, associations and bodies started working towards reform. One of the turning points of these efforts is often cited as the release of Dr A J Cronin’s controversial novel in 1937, entitled The Citadel. In his book, Cronin details ideals of a national healthcare system and highlighted the tragic consequences of the current ethical and logistical flaws in the medical profession.

But, despite huge support from the general public, the plans for the NHS were strongly opposed by the British Medical Association (BMA) – the doctors’ union. Many medical professionals were very unhappy about having to work for the state. They finally agreed to the give the new system their endorsement at the eleventh hour, with the concession that GPs were allowed to run their practices as business, consultants were promised a decent wage and allowed to keep their private patients.

One of the NHS’s biggest challenges has always been funding and it wasn’t long before money problems began to cause problems. It seems years of inadequate healthcare had left a backlog of work which blew the budget by a long way. By 1951 charges had been introduced for prescriptions, spectacles and dental work and in protest, Bevan – who thought this was the beginning of the end of his beloved NHS – quit his position.

During its lifetime the NHS has seen and been a part of huge advancements in every area of medicine – the invention of the CT scanner, the first test tube baby, the introduction of the Organ Donation Register to name but a few. These amazing steps forward have saved countless lives but the continual, increasing pressure on the health service has and continues, to take its toll. But, despite this, the NHS remains a world leader in terms of treatment, expertise and reach.

No one can be unaware of the colossal efforts the individuals who make up the NHS have made during the Coronavirus pandemic, one of the biggest healthcare crises in the service’s existence. It’s down to these people, the doctors, nurses, technicians, pharmacists, carers, cleaners, cooks and the countless other professionals that the NHS has managed to maintain its integrity and continue to run on the core values on which the it was founded.