A service that meets the needs of everyone, is free at the point of delivery and based on clinical need – three core principles that have defined our National Health Service since its establishment in 1948. For the first time in my life, I worry whether this can and will be maintained.
I was born in Newham General Hospital 50 years after Bevan and Attlee created the NHS. My parents had moved to the UK in search of a better life and being able to have their first child in a safe, clean hospital where staff were well trained and able to provide care was the epitome of what they hoped Britain would offer. My brother was born in the same hospital two years later and my sister followed five years after that. We never questioned the existence of the NHS, seeing it as an intrinsic part of the fabric of British society.
When I developed severe asthma, it was the NHS and our A&E services that I relied on. When I got my finger stuck in the garden door and had to spend two weeks in hospital, it was the NHS that I turned to. When I needed glasses and a tooth filling, it was the NHS that made sure the services were available and accessible. Throughout all of these experiences, I took a good quality National Health Service for granted. The inconvenience of being ill was my main concern; I never worried that I wouldn’t be able to access healthcare.
There is no denying that NHS is far from perfect, particularly in terms of mental health services. When I was diagnosed with anorexia aged 11 the NHS saved my life. But accessing services during my recovery was not easy and I dreaded appointments. Some of the problems I faced could have been solved with a better funded and more well-resourced NHS, others could not. But regardless, the fact that the system existed and I could access it meant that eventually I was able to move on. I worry that the same will not be true for the next generation.
For the first time in my life, I am genuinely concerned that the precious NHS system that I have taken for granted my whole life, will not survive.
With 50,000 operations cancelled and reports of patients dying in hospital corridors, accounts of this winter’s crisis have proved a harrowing read. The number of people needing care is rising but there isn’t sufficient funding or enough resources to make sure supply can keep up. Preventative steps and the integration of social, physical and mental care are two ways that we can increase efficiency. But there is no denying that the NHS needs more money. The government’s attempts to address the winter crisis extend to an extra £437 million and £1 billion for social care – this is insufficient and unsustainable. Doctors and nurses are overworked and underpaid while a shortage of staff means that medical students are being asked to volunteer.
The NHS was founded on a radical vision of social change and as it enters its 70th year we must go back to that principle if we are to have any chance of saving it and avoiding privatisation. All of my experience tells me that people are willing to pay more for a properly funded and well-functioning National Health Service. The introduction of an additional tax to raise the vital extra funds is one idea.
But fundamentally, we must move away from the rhetoric that this is just a short-term ‘winter crisis’ or something that can be dealt with by just increasing efficiency. We are demanding more and more from our NHS so need to be prepared to deliver the radical changes in funding that will keep it alive.