The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom will celebrate its 75th anniversary on 5 July this year. The NHS has revolutionised access to healthcare, allowing basic healthcare to become available to everyone in the United Kingdom.
In the 19th Century, there were many efforts to make access to healthcare public in the United Kingdom. Government officials like Edwin Chadwick had fought for many reforms in the health sector and regulations that affected the health of the working classes. Chadwick pushed many public reform acts, which culminated in the 1848 Public Health Act, which was an optional reform local authorities could introduce to help with public health. The reforms mostly concentrated on improving housing conditions in impoverished areas. This sowed the first seeds, which would then culminate in the establishment of the NHS a hundred years later.
In the years that followed, stricter and more sweeping reforms came to the United Kingdom, a poignant and significant example being the 1875 Public Health Act. This Health Act was compulsory for all local authorities and consisted of promising clean water to all, the implementation of clean and proper sewage systems and for each council to appoint a Medical Officer of Health. These reforms helped improve public health drastically. Statistics compiled by the Taylor & Francis Group showed that the mortality rate fell from 22.35 per 1000 habitants between the years of 1838-1875 to around 19.08 per 1000 habitants in the 1880s. These positive statistics encouraged the population and the British government to see the clear benefits of prioritising public health.
The Second World War (1939-1945) had left a sombre feeling for Britons that searched for change. This resulted in the appointment of the Labour Party, a left-wing political party, to be voted into power in Parliament. This appointment allowed for the British government to grant more attention towards social policies.
The culmination of these factors led to the creation of the NHS, which opened its doors at the hands of the health minister, Aneurin Bevan, on July 5, 1948. The birth of the NHS represented a triumph of social welfare. The service offers quality health care services regardless of one's financial standing. The NHS aimed to provide universal coverage for its three main services—hospital care, primary care, and social services—and was, and still is, predominantly funded by taxes.
The NHS has been pioneers of medicine throughout its history. In 1968, it delivered Europe’s first ever liver transplant. In 1971, the NHS performed the world’s first CT scan. In 1978, the NHS delivered the first ever test tube baby. The NHS has always and continues to seek to innovate healthcare.
The challenges faced by the NHS
The NHS is an expensive service to keep running. The King’s Fund reported that in 2021/22 the Department for Health and Social Care spent £190 billion on the NHS. This represents around 11.9% of the total GDP of the United Kingdom.
This may seem like a lot of money, however, these funds only keep the public service afloat. The NHS needs to spend at least £2.7 billion on administrative costs alone. Nurses, doctors and junior doctors’ salaries have depreciated by more than a quarter since 2008. The NHS has been running on a tight budget and the British government has repeatedly introduced budget cuts which have added significant strain to the NHS. Recently in 2022, the NHS confederation shared that their budget was cut by between £4 and £9.4 billion. Additional budgets have not been able to keep up with inflation and have left the NHS with a tighter budget.
The Covid-19 pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic’s arrival in 2020 unleashed a wave of unprecedented challenges for the NHS as well as healthcare systems all over the world. The NHS was overwhelmed by the scale and rapid spread of this new virus.
The pandemic strained the capacity of the NHS to a massive extent. Hospitals quickly became full of patients with coronavirus. This led to a shortage of beds in intensive care units, ventilators, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and of medical staff . The pressure on available resources and personnel stretched the system to its limits.
The NHS had to shift its focus to combating the ongoing pandemic. This meant that routine and non-urgent procedures were cancelled or postponed. This created a backlog that has had a profound impact on patients. The increased wait times for these procedures, which in some cases, led to prolonged suffering, and increased the risk for certain conditions.
Additionally, the NHS’s financial resources were stretched during the coronavirus pandemic. The NHS had to pay many additional costs to secure new equipment, expand facilities, and to recruit extra staff to manage the rush of patients. At the same time, revenue streams decreased as non-coronavirus healthcare services were restricted. These factors led to the NHS incurring additional costs of £4 to £5 billion as reported by the NHS Confederation.
NHS staff suffered emotionally and physically during the pandemic. Healthcare workers faced immense pressures, were forced to work long hours in challenging conditions while struggling with the constant threat of infection. Staff experienced high levels of stress, burnout, and mental health challenges. Their constant hard work saved millions of lives during these unprecedented times.
The response to the pandemic highlighted the resilience, strength and dedication of NHS staff. The British public had a new-found deeper appreciation and support for the NHS as an organisation and its staff.
How will they celebrate 75 years of service?
To celebrate its many successful years of service, the NHS is encouraging large monuments and buildings to ‘Light up Blue’ in support. Over 70 of the United Kingdom’s largest monuments will be taking part on the 5th of July, most famously the Shard and the House of Commons in London.
Other smaller events will be held by members of the community and staff to celebrate the important birthday. Westminster Abbey will host a service in honour of the NHS. School talks will be held around the UK as well as park runs in support of the NHS.
This momentous anniversary allows the British public to look back and honour all of the NHS’s achievements and the unwavering dedication its staff has shown throughout its years of service.
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