Figures released recently show that up to 100,000 patients have been left waiting in ambulances outside hospitals for at least half an hour so far this winter in Britain, due to overcrowding in A&E departments, with many among them waiting over an hour. Following the cancellation of thousands of non-urgent operations earlier this month, these figures highlight the extent of the problems faced by the National Health Service. Though winter is typically the most testing time of year for the NHS, the scale of this years’ issues has been largely unprecedented.
The NHS enters its 70th year in the midst of one of the most severe crises in its history. It could be argued that the NHS has been in a constant state of crisis for as much as two years, but with so much else to occupy journalists and hold the public’s attention, its perils are only covered during comparatively slow news cycles.
The NHS faces a number of problems, and the severity of this year’s winter crisis is attributable to a long list of factors, with staffing levels and funding at the top of that list. Questions of funding, at least, are nothing new. Since its inception, Britain’s National Health Service has been an incredibly costly venture — at the time of undertaking it was the most significant amount of government spending ever allocated: £437million in its first year.
Many of the arguments put forward by those who opposed the NHS 70 years ago are still being used by its opponents today, but the NHS remains perhaps Britain’s proudest achievement and is held up as a shining example by proponents of nationalised healthcare all over the world. Even now, its existence suggests that — at least in terms of healthcare — Britain is a country that cares for all, regardless of their financial situation. But the NHS faces a gravely uncertain future. To guarantee its survival, politicians may need to look beyond partisanship and short-term political point scoring, to work on real solutions.
After World War II, something of an awakening went on across Europe, and Britain was no different. Thousands returned from war with a fresh outlook and a determination to create a better world than the one that so much had been sacrificed to preserve. After such horrific loss came introspection; people came around to the view that good health should be a universal right, not just one for those who could afford it.
At the time, Britain’s hospitals were run either by charities or by local authorities; those in work could get treatment at a cost, but for many, that cost was too great. And for those below the poverty line, arguably the most in need due to their dreadful living conditions, healthcare simply was not an option.
It was Clement Atlee’s Labour party, elected in 1945 on a manifesto of sweeping social reform, who introduced the National Health Service in 1948 based on four core principles — the same principles that underpin its function today. They are: free at the point of use, available to all who need it, paid for by general taxation and used responsibly.