July 5th marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the National Health Service. It is a delight for me to be able to celebrate the NHS, and the astonishing work it does every day to cure us of disease, to heal injury and to keep us safe for the future.
In Herefordshire, we have been very lucky over those years: in the skill and dedication of our General Practitioners, and of the staff in our County Hospital and community hospitals. Supporting them, through fights for lower parking charges, for a rebate on the PFI contract, and for fairer and higher funding, has been a constant concern for me as MP.
But on the 70th anniversary perhaps we can learn something from the NHS’s history, and bust a few myths. First, as the London Olympics highlighted, the NHS has become no less important to our culture and aspirations than to our healthcare, as a public service able “to serve the needs of everyone, free at the point of delivery, and based on clinical need, not ability to pay”.
Secondly, the NHS belongs to all of us. It is not the property of any political party, and all the main parties played essential roles in its creation. It arose from the famous 1942 report of William Beveridge, a Liberal; it was framed in policy by a White Paper of 1944 by Henry Willink, a Conservative, and it was enacted into law by Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1946. Since then, the NHS has been supported, through seven decades, by governments of every political stripe.
Thirdly, the NHS has always been seen as a public service, and rightly so. But public ownership is something else: the NHS’s founding vision does not mention that it should be entirely publicly owned, and GPs have long been private practices funded from the public purse. Today, contrary to conventional wisdom, only a small part of the NHS is privately delivered: about 7.5% of its revenue funding in 2015/16, according to FullFact.
So what does all this mean? Simply this: the NHS faces huge challenges today from demographic and technological change, and it needs better integration with social care. It is for us right to raise questions, of cost and of fairness. But we will make most progress most quickly if we discuss the NHS in a spirit not of acrid partisanship, but of warm and friendly engagement.