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.

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.


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.”

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(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon Editing by Alison Williams)