The story of the NHS

Doctor, Doctor: In 2017, one million patients used the NHS every 36 hours.

The NHS is celebrating its birthday next week. It has been 71 years since it was founded in the spirit of post-war optimism, making health care free for all UK citizens. How did it happen?

  • What is the NHS exactly?

    It is the UK’s free health care service, that celebrates its birthday on 5 July. It is entirely funded by the Government. That is why, if you want to see a doctor or you need an operation, you do not have to pay any fees.

    It was founded in 1948 by the Labour Health Minister, Nye Bevan. Since then, the UK’s health has dramatically improved. Fewer babies die at birth. Diseases, like polio, have disappeared. People live longer lives.

    Basically, it is partly thanks to the NHS that you will celebrate your 71st birthday one day too!

  • Who was Nye Bevan?

    His full name was actually Aneurin Bevan (he was Welsh), but he was nicknamed Nye.

    Back in 1945, when World War Two was over, most politicians agreed that health care in the UK was a mess. It was erratically provided by charities and volunteer hospitals. People were charged to see a doctor, meaning poor families were often driven into debt just to stay alive.

    Then Labour were voted into Parliament in a surprise landslide election. Nye Bevan was put in charge of health care. He presented a radical plan to bring all of the UK’s hospitals under one, UK-wide organisation, funded by the national budget.

  • Then what happened?

    After a lot of negotiations, his plan was accepted. Three years later, the NHS was born.

    Health care was now free for all UK citizens. At the time, that also included going to see the dentist and the optician.

    On 5 July, Bevan visited a hospital in Manchester to launch the NHS. He said that the UK now had “the moral leadership of the world”.

  • How has it changed since?

    Unsurprisingly, the NHS has grown bigger. It now employs 115,000 doctors — 10 times as many as in 1948.

    In fact, the NHS has grown so much that it is the fifth-largest employer in the world.

  • Can we afford it?

    The NHS’s budget is 12 times bigger now than it was when it was founded, even once you adjust for inflation. And it is going to grow even more. Last week, the Government said it would spend £20 billion extra on the NHS each year for the next five years, as a “birthday present”.

  • How long will it last?

    It is impossible to know. The challenges facing the NHS have also changed over the last 70 years, although money has always been an important issue.

    Today, most simple diseases can be cured and complex diseases, like cancer, have far higher survival rates. In other words, people live longer. That means the NHS spends more time on incurable conditions like dementia.

    It is unlikely that the NHS will disappear any time soon. This year, one poll showed that 54% of Britons are proud of the NHS, making it even more popular than British history, the Army and the royal family. Bevan would be pleased.

You Decide

  1. Will the NHS exist in another 70 years?


  1. Write down five questions that you would like to ask a doctor working in the NHS.

Word Watch

Paid for.
One of the Britain’s two main political parties.
National Health Service.
Randomly and unpredictably.
In politics, this is nothing to do with falling rocks — it means winning by a large majority.
When prices rise over time. For example, in 1952 the price of a prescription was 5p in England. Now it is £8.80.
An umbrella term for several problems that sometimes appear in old age, including confusion and memory loss.

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