In July 1948, the Health Secretary Nye Bevan walked into what was the first NHS hospital, received the keys to the building from the local council and met the first NHS patient.
As we approach the 70th anniversary of this momentous public health achievement, people in Nye’s birthplace of Tredegar here in my constituency of Blaenau Gwent are proud of their town’s role in the creation of the National Health Service.
Seventy years ago, Nye Bevan knew that a health service free at the point of use was possible because he’d seen it happen in his home town.
Tredegar’s Medical Aid Society collected contributions from local miners and steel workers to pay for health care. Nye promised to “Tredegarise” healthcare across the country so that health care could be provided according to need, not the ability to pay.
Today, the NHS faces many challenges. It certainly needs more funding from the UK Government, but it’s a brilliant institution. It’s staffed by 1.5million dedicated professionals and conducts around 38,000 operations each day.
People’s healthcare needs today are very different to those Nye witnessed.
Many illnesses of the past such as polio and diphtheria are all but eradicated by modern medicine. He would be amazed at the work that goes on in today’s NHS hospitals. Procedures such as organ transplants, IVF, microsurgery and chemotherapy were unheard of in the late 40s, while conditions which were a death sentence several decades ago are now survivable.
In the 21st Century, we have new and growing health challenges such as diabetes and obesity. Like many less affluent places, these are major issues in Nye’s old stomping ground of Blaenau Gwent, where surveys estimate that 70% of adults are overweight or obese and 11% are being treated for diabetes.
Obesity is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer. Diabetes leads to significant complications including, in extreme cases, amputation. Diabetes is estimated to cost the Welsh NHS £500million a year. The total cost of diabetes to the NHS is reckoned to be around £10billion a year.
The NHS has a leading role in reducing obesity but, of course, promoting healthier lifestyles cannot be the responsibility of the Government or the health service alone. We all have our part to play.
I think three actions could make a big difference.
Nationally, the Government needs an effective UK-wide public health strategy. A new childhood obesity plan is crucial with, for example, no adverts for junk food shown before the 9pm watershed.
Devolved administrations, councils and schools have to encourage greater physical activity and healthier living. The Daily Mile programme which encourages children to run for at least fifteen minutes a day at school, should be taken up everywhere.
We can also do our bit by going for 10,000 steps a day or getting some extra exercise in every week. But many of us are going to need help and inspiration to get us moving.
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. If we can improve people’s health and fitness before they need medical or surgical treatment, we all benefit.
In 2018, Tredegar’s brilliant Parc Bryn Bach Running Club delivers the NHS Couch to 5K programme. Volunteer enthusiasts inspire local people to run for the first time and to keep going even after the initial enthusiasm wanes. I am involved in the local Parkrun there, which is a friendly 5k run every Saturday morning.
It’s groups like these, supported by a strong national public health strategy that can promote good health.
70 years ago, eradicating polio would have seemed as impossible as eliminating diabetes does today. But with better leadership from government and local activity, we can make a start.
Nick Smith is the Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent