Britain’s much-loved but troubled National Health Service (NHS) marks 75 years on Wednesday since it was founded as the West’s first universally independent health care system.
In a secular age, the NHS is the closest thing Britain has to a national religion – it is dearly loved, with more public support than the royal family or any other British institution.
It was founded three years after World War II by a pioneering Labor government on the principle that everyone should have free access to high-quality health care funded by general taxation.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose parents are an NHS doctor and pharmacist, paid tribute last week when he unveiled a 15-year plan to recruit hundreds of thousands of new health workers.
“Every minute of these 75 years, the NHS has been kept going by the millions of people who have worked for it. On behalf of a grateful public, thank you,” he said.
“I feel a strong sense of responsibility to ensure that their legacy lives on. And to ensure that the NHS is there for our children and grandchildren as it was for us.”
Like Sunak’s parents, the migrant workers who helped shape Britain’s landscape in the post-war decades were crucial to the early growth of the NHS.
His centrality to national life was highlighted by a memorable dance sequence involving NHS staff and patients at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics.
Just in time for Christmas 2020, when crowds clapped at their doors, a year to pay tribute to medical professionals fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, Justin Bieber remixed his “Saint” with the NHS Choir.
A sick condition
Sunak’s new workforce plan, however, is an acknowledgment that the NHS is under unprecedented pressure following the pandemic, even though the government spends almost 12% of its budget on healthcare – by far its biggest item.
Unethical doctors and nurses struggle for better wages, an aging and unfit population requires more complex treatments, cancers go undiagnosed due to a lack of scanners, and hospitals are crumbling.
Sumi Manirajan, vice-chairman of the British Medical Association’s junior doctors committee, accused Sunak’s Conservative government of undervaluing doctors.
“This will result in doctors leaving the country, going abroad, to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and actually the people,” she told AFP at a doctors’ protest.
“Government (ministers) may use private health care but the average citizen in the UK uses the NHS, relies on the NHS.”
In a 75th anniversary report by the King’s Fund charity, it compared the health systems of 19 similar countries and found that Britain is in dire straits.
It cites data showing the UK has the second-worst death rate for stroke and heart attack.
The UK has “the lowest number of nurses and doctors per capita compared to its peers” and four times fewer hospital and intensive care beds than Germany, the report said.
But Comments There has been support for radical reforms in Britain, such as a shift to a hybrid funding model, where patients pay for some of their treatment through insurance, as is the norm elsewhere.
More than 3,000 respondents, fully 93 percent, believe that the NHS should remain free in the area of care based on general taxation, according to the British annual survey of social attitudes last year.
But the authority’s survey showed 51 per cent were dissatisfied with the quality of care, particularly with appointment times to see general practitioners and hospital doctors.
Sunak is fighting doctors’ pay demands as the UK struggles to control inflation and his government is pouring “record sums” into the NHS.
But it needs to modernize its services with better use of digital technology, including artificial intelligence, he said on Friday.
Sunak argued that his workforce plan would make the NHS fit for “the next decade”. But some on the front lines offer a much bleaker forecast.
“Currently, as a functional, universal public service, the NHS is failing,” geriatrics consultant David Oliver said in 2015. BMJMedical journal.
“He may not be in end-of-life care, or his financial or political support will be removed, but without immediate action and long-term thinking, he will not see his 85th birthday.
British Medical Journal (BMJ)