Britain's free health service turns 70

MILTON KEYNES, England, June 26 (Reuters) - Free, good quality healthcare for everyone, from cradle to grave. That was the mission of Britain’s National Health Service when it was founded on July 5, 1948.

Ask any patient, nurse or doctor at the sprawling Milton Keynes University Hospital in central England how they feel about the NHS now, and you will find that those core values are just as important today as they were 70 years ago.

“I’ve had so many things go wrong with my body in the last four-and-a-half years that it’s just incredible that one organization can cure so many things and treat me so kindly, efficiently, and for free. It’s just astonishing,” said 83-year-old Donald Ritson, who was receiving treatment in the hospital’s Ward 24, a 20-bed surgical ward.

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70 years of Britain's free health services
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70 years of Britain's free health services
People wait in the waiting room at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Eric Blackman (L) and Ira Hutchinson (C) participate in a physiotherapy class for amputees in the Physiotherapy department at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Inpatient Jean Barnett has her hair washed in the hospital hairdressers at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
An inpatient awaits visitors in her room in Ward 8 at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Inpatient John Cheese sits on a bed in Ward 24 in Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Pigeon holes are seen at the Junior Doctor's staffroom at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
A nurse takes blood from a patient in the Macmillan Unit at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
An inpatient talks to her visitor in Ward 8 at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
A surgical team prepare a patient ahead of performing an operation at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
A woman looks out of a corridor window in Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
A junior doctor works in the Junior Doctor staffroom at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
A surgical team prepare a patient ahead of performing an operation at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
A skeleton is seen in the physiotherapy department at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Members of the surgical team prepare to enter an operating theatre ahead of an operation at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Elizabeth Nomhwange observes her son, Moses Aloho, having a hearing test during an appointment at the Audiology department in Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Hospital staff work in the Accident and Emergency department at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
A hospital porter pushes a patient through the Accident and Emergency department at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Hospital staff prepare to receive a body in the mortuary at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
A hospital worker cleans the floor of Ward 8 in Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Hospital staff deliver patients their lunchtime meals in Ward 8 of Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Hospital workers communicate to each other in Ward 8 at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Inpatient Annette Evans is cared for by a nurse in Ward 8 of Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Inpatient Donald Ritson and his wife Linda Ritson arrive to Ward 24 in Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 22, 2018. "I've had so many things go wrong with my body in the last four-and-a-half years that it's just incredible that one organisation can cure so many things and treat me so kindly, efficiently, and for free. It's just astonishing,�said Ritson. He remembers what it was like before the state-funded NHS, when healthcare was beyond the reach of many people because they could not afford to pay doctors' fees. "I can remember my brother being ill and my parents being unable to afford to go to a doctor, so they tried to treat it themselves," he recalled. "We could never go back to that sort of system. Cradle to grave, it's not a bad idea." REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Sarah Plant comforts her grandmother, Barbara Lant, who awaits treatment in the Accident and Emergency department of Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 6, 2018. "If we'd had to pay for the care, we wouldn't have been able to afford it. I don't really want to think about what it would have been like," said Plant. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Wayne Vassell, a junior doctor specializing in orthopedics, poses for a photograph in the Junior Doctor's staffroom at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 6, 2018. "For me the NHS means a lot because it's a unique model that provides care to people irrespective of background and income," Vassell said. "The best reward is when you've been treating a patient and you have a happy family and they say thank you." REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Inpatients David Corstorphino (L) and David Popplewell eat their lunchtime meal on Ward 8 of Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Patients participate in a physiotherapy class in the hydrotherapy pool in the Physiotherapy department at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Nurses check the hearing of a newborn baby during a hearing test in Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Inpatient Donald Ritson lies in bed in Ward 24 in Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 22, 2018. "I've had so many things go wrong with my body in the last four-and-a-half years that it's just incredible that one organisation can cure so many things and treat me so kindly, efficiently, and for free. It's just astonishing,�said Ritson. He remembers what it was like before the state-funded NHS, when healthcare was beyond the reach of many people because they could not afford to pay doctors' fees. "I can remember my brother being ill and my parents being unable to afford to go to a doctor, so they tried to treat it themselves," he recalled. "We could never go back to that sort of system. Cradle to grave, it's not a bad idea." REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
A hospital worker assesses a patient in the Critical Care Unit at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
Nurses Josephine Warner and Hannah Hall work in the nurses station in Ward 24 at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Milton Keynes, central England, Britain, May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay 
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Ritson remembers what it was like before the state-funded NHS, when healthcare was beyond the reach of many people because they could not afford to pay doctors’ fees.

“I can remember my brother being ill and my parents being unable to afford to go to a doctor, so they tried to treat it themselves,” he recalled.

“We could never go back to that sort of system. Cradle to grave, it's not a bad idea.”

A former minister once wrote that the NHS is the closest thing the English have to a religion, and that often-repeated quote still rings true. It is a political sacred cow, with rival parties competing to show their support for it and to try to convince the public it is safe in their hands.

But as much as Britons love the NHS, they also fret about it. Can it survive in its present form, delivering care for free to anyone who needs it, in the face of ever-increasing pressures from an aging population? That is a perennial topic of debate.

“Yes, I do worry about it. There’s not enough funding and staffing to go around already, and people are having more and more care and they’re living longer,” said 29-year-old Sarah Plant, who was in the hospital’s Accident and Emergency Department, accompanying her elderly grandmother Barbara Lant who had been taken ill.

 

"THANK YOU"

Plant, who has the rare and debilitating Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, is a frequent user of the NHS, for herself and for her children who also have various health problems. She says she has noticed the pressures getting worse over the years, for example waiting times for certain tests have got longer.

“I’ve had some bad experiences. I think everyone has,” she said.

But Plant is in no doubt about what she and her family owe to the NHS.

“It’s kept a lot of us alive,” she said. “They’ve brought me back twice. I wouldn’t be here without them.”

“If we’d had to pay for the care, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it. I don’t really want to think about what it would have been like.”

Wayne Vassell, a junior doctor specializing in orthopedics, said the ideals underpinning the NHS were important to him as someone from a modest background, the first in his family to go to university.

“For me the NHS means a lot because it’s a unique model that provides care to people irrespective of background and income,” he said, answering questions from Reuters during a break in the junior doctors’ mess.

Vassell said he did not expect the pressures on the NHS to ease off anytime soon. He saw the service as “structurally more pressured” than in the past, because of the aging population and the competing demands on state funding, at a time when other public services had been hit hard by austerity policies.

But far from being put off by those pressures, he said he regarded them as a challenge worth rising to.

“The best reward is when you’ve been treating a patient and you have a happy family and they say thank you,” he said.

Joe Harrison, the hospital’s chief executive, was upbeat about the long-term future of the NHS. He expected the core principle of free care available for all to remain in place because there was simply no political will to change it.

“I have total confidence that we will be here in another 70 years.”

For a photo essay, click on https://reut.rs/2lpMHKi

(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon Editing by Alison Williams)

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