A Brief History of the NHS

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January 14, 2016

The National Health Service was first conceived at midnight on July 4th 1948 as an experiment to offer free healthcare for everyone based on UK citizenship, waiving fees and insurance premiums. Despite a wealth of problems and a consistent shortage of funds throughout its lifetime, the NHS has cared for Britons for over fifty years and is the first example of a successful model of free healthcare anywhere in the world.

The NHS may not have taken form until 1948, but healthcare polemics and philanthropists were championing reform prior to this – most famously Edwin Chadwick and Sir William Beveridge – who in 1942 stated: “Medical treatment covering all requirements will be provided for all citizens by a national health service.” Without the support of the government, little was achieved in providing medical care to those without the provisions to pay.

Although hospitals existed, their focus was the terminally ill, while care of the elderly and the mentally ill would often mean being locked away in institutions with little palliative care.

Prior to the reforms only the rich could afford doctors, while the poor had to live without medical treatment, relying instead on home remedies and the charity of doctors. For those needing assistance, upfront payment was demanded at hospitals with poorer people only getting reimbursed afterwards.

Sir William Beveridge levied changes with a report into social care in 1942 explaining it was one of three essential elements of a viable social security system. Following this, two seminal white papers followed which proposed a national health service and health minister Anuerin Bevan pushed the legislation through the Commons in 1946.

Two years later and the NHS was up and running. Despite a number of expected setbacks, like the sudden surge in demand from people previously denied medical attention, and overcrowding, the NHS weathered the trials and tribulations. Some of the positive results included increased life expectancy,the widespread use of the pill and keyhole surgery – all of which have been major triumphs for the NHS.

In recent years, the NHS has seen running costs soar and cash shortages have plagued it, while politicians continue to struggle to operate a workable stream of commerce to fund the service. While the NHS is moving towards a privatised model to stay afloat, it is as popular with the general public now as it ever has been. In fact, in 2015, a poll showed 54% of Britons citing the NHS as the second most important issue for voters and their families, behind the cost of living 69%.


1942 – Sir William Beveridge’s report, Social Insurance and Allied Services paved the way for the foundation of the NHS

1951 – A one shilling charge is proposed for prescription, glasses and dentures by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell.

1957 – A report by the Royal Commission on Mental Illness and Mental Deficiency, is published in response to concerns over the treatment of people with mental illness.

1979 – The Tories come to power and despite the concerns of an ageing population and technical costs, they assure that the NHS is not going to collapse.

1994 – The number of regional health authorities is dramatically reduced to eight.

2000 – Introduction of The NHS Plan – a 10-year modernisation programme of investment and reform.

2012 – Following nearly 18 months and thousands of amendments, the Health and Social Care Bill is passed.

2014 – Autumn Statement injects £2billion into the NHS budget for 2015/16

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