The Birth of the NHS

Free health care and the NHS are now an integral part of the functioning of the UK. It is something that many people automatically think of when thinking about Britain. Almost everyone in the UK today has grown up with the NHS, and have never had to fear or worry about accessing health care, and whether or not they can afford it. However the NHS is only 80 years old, much more recent than people may think. But how did it come about?

The NHS was largely a result of the Second World War. World War Two was arguably the most catastrophic in history. Whilst the first world war saw a revolution in the type of war-fair being used with trench war-fair coming into play, WWII saw a revolution in the type of warfare used, sending home numerous casualties. For the first time it wasn’t simply injured men coming home; the attack on the home front meant that there were vast numbers of badly injured people at home also. The volume of casualties reduced the health service to near bankruptcy.

In 1945 the Labour Party won the election on the back of a promise to revolutionise the country. One of these promises was to overhaul the health care system. They were promising four things with regard to healthcare; it would be free at the point of use; it would be available to all who needed it; it would be paid for by general taxation; it would be used responsibly. Gone were the days of charity run hospitals and expensive medical treatments, and worrying about whether or not you could afford medical care. The National Health Service Act was passed in 1946, and in 1948 it was put into action by the opening of Park Hospital in Manchester. For the first time hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians and dentists were brought together under one umbrella organisation and it was free for all at the point of use.

From the start Bevan wanted to ‘universalise the best’, rather than simply provide a safety net for the country’s poorest. Free eye examinations were one thing now covered by the NHS. Previously, most families would have considered spectacles a vast expense, only made affordable by insurance schemes. If you couldn’t afford insurance, then you often just went without. Because of this, many people who needed glasses did not have them. As such the government vastly underestimated just how bad the nation’s eye sight was, meaning that the cost in the first year alone of prescription spectacles was five times more than they had predicted. This was true for almost all aspects of health care.

It took a while to work out the hiccups of this new system. In 1949 prescription charges were introduced and the modern framework for the role of nursing was set up. In 1951 charges were introduced for dentistry and prescription glasses. It has been responsible for many medical breakthroughs, such as the discovery of the molecular structure of deoxyriboneuculaic acid (DNA) and the materials that make up genes, and the link between smoking and lung cancer.