The National Health Service was born on July 5 1948, delivered by visionary Labour health minister Aneurin “Nye” Bevan at a ceremony at Park Hospital in Manchester, which is now Trafford General.
On that day the NHS Act of Parliament came into effect, revolutionising healthcare in Britain by bringing 2,751 hospitals under state control. The act ushered in universal healthcare that was paid for through taxation. Before then hospitals had been run by local authorities or charities, with many people either unable to afford proper medical treatment or being forced into debt to access it.
It was a time when the scars from the horrors of the Second World War were still fresh. Britain had elected a Labour government and working people expected a better stake in the country they had fought to defend. Now, on its 70th birthday, the NHS still arguably stands as Britain’s proudest and most enduring post-war achievement, though its future is under threat.
During the last seven decades the NHS has been at the forefront of medical innovation and has changed in innumerable ways, but as Unite national officer Sarah Carpenter explained, it is still underpinned by the same principles.
Carpenter said: “For 70 years Britain has achieved what nearly no other country in the world has done: Providing universal healthcare that is free at the point of use for everyone, rich or poor. This is an incredible achievement built on a national consensus based on a shared morality and a determination to see the NHS succeed.
“There have been challenges over the years and Unite and the wider trade union movement have fought for better pay and conditions for NHS workers and better services for patients. Despite the difficulties, the NHS and its determined staff are still something we can be immensely proud of.”
Some of those challenges – such as the winning of the first national NHS strike by underpaid ancillary workers in 1973 and the 1998 landmark equal pay victory for speech therapists, both of which involved Unite’s predecessor unions – are part of NHS history. But many current challenges remain and they will dictate the future of the health service in the years to come.
Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said: “A huge amount of staff are struggling financially, while yet greater numbers are overburdened by increasing demand and shrinking resources.
While it is true that the NHS needs to adapt to challenges such as people living longer, rising obesity and the need for mental health parity, the real problem is the Tories’ decimation of the NHS.
“The system is crumbling not because the principle of universal healthcare is old and outdated, but because the government’s path will eventually lead to something else being erected in its place: A privatised health system run to profit from the illness of the people rather than profiting the health of the people.”
Unite has been at the forefront of defending the NHS against Tory attacks in recent years, running campaigns that helped secure a long overdue pay rise for workers and extra funding for under pressure services. One of the biggest threats to emerge is the government’s sustainability and transformation plans (STPs) programme, which is being driven by £22bn of cuts. Unite is fighting to prevent the programme through its “Slash, Trash and Privatise” campaign.
“Under STPs local ‘accountable care organisations’ will be given carte blanche over funding and services. They have to have private sector involvement and there’s no requirement for them to have public sector organisations involved, so it could mean you have the likes of Virgin Care taking over healthcare for the entire north east of England, for example,” said Unite regional health chair David Donohue.
After 70 years of service to Britain, the NHS is facing the biggest crisis in its history. Despite the attacks by a government intent on dismantling it and a new wave of public health issues, the NHS’ future is still far from decided.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “The creation of the NHS represented hope and a democratic right to health and welfare. Our right is to live and indeed die with dignity and over the past 70 years legions of NHS workers have ensured that we have.
“The NHS has sustained hostile political administrations starving it of cash and carrying on a relentless path of privatisation. Yet the hope remains and we know that the Labour opposition stands with the NHS like the government that founded it.”
Happy Birthday NHS timeline
1948 – Aneurin Bevan launches the NHS.
1949 – With workforce shortages caused by the Second World War, the government begins to recruit NHS workers from abroad, including those who were part of the Windrush Generation from the Caribbean.
1967 – The contraceptive pill is made available to all women and not just those who are married.
1973 – The first national NHS strike by underpaid ancillary workers results in a pay rise.
1979 – First bone marrow transplant on a child with primary immunodeficiency at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
1986 – The world’s first triple transplant, consisting of a heat, lung and liver, takes place at Cambridge’s Papworth Hospital.
1991 – NHS Trusts are established, following the NHS Community Act from the previous year. Health authorities can now manage their own budgets and purchase healthcare from hospitals.
1997 – Labour government sweeps to victory in general election after a campaign warning against Tory destruction of the NHS.
1998 – Landmark equal pay victory for speech therapists, supported Unite’s predecessor union MSF.
2012 – First doctors strike in 40 years over working hours and pensions.
2015 – Sustainability and Transformation Plans, dubbed Slash, Trash and Privatise by Unite, launched in a bid to drive through £22bn of budget cuts.
2017 – Red Cross warns of humanitarian crisis within the NHS as Tory budget cuts put services and staff under increasing strain.
2018 – Government offers 6.5 per cent pay increase to NHS workers, after widespread campaigning by trade unions. The offer was made during intense negotiations with Unite and other unions and ended an eight year pay freeze.
A shorter version of this feature appeared in Unite Works Summer 2018