This week my former employer celebrates a milestone birthday. The National Health Service, for whom I worked for more than 20 years, is 70 years old. It has weathered huge changes since its founding on 5 July 1948, but remains at its core a healthcare system free at the point of delivery and available to all, regardless of wealth.
Those tenets were outlined in a white paper published by a Conservative Health Minister in 1944. A year earlier, Winston Churchill announced that a national health service would be established, and in his 1945 manifesto he set out the Conservatives commitment to a universal, comprehensive, and free health service, which is as true today as it was then.
Before I was elected to Parliament I spent more than two decades as an NHS nurse, following in the footsteps of my mother. From my own experience, working alongside some truly selfless and compassionate colleagues even now through my occasional banks shifts, I know the NHS also retains its core values of being a “really human and personal service” as was proposed in 1944. For that, we are immensely lucky.
In other areas, however, we are also fortunate to have progressed from the service my mother would have experienced as a young girl. Equipment has seen improvement – whether it be adjustable beds rather than wooden blocks, or digital thermometers over glass – while healthcare professionals and patients alike have benefited from the wider availability of sterile supplies since the 1960s. This has not only reduced time spent on boiling instruments and dressings, but has also removed the discomfort to patients from implements such as re-usable, but often blunt, syringes and needles.
Nursing has also received the recognition it deserves. As the most trusted of healthcare professionals, nurses provide patients with not only emotional support, but also unparalleled treatment quality. The reason many nurses join, and stay in, the profession is down to their unwavering belief in looking after their fellow human.
We have also undergone professionalisation, acknowledging the greater responsibilities undertaken by nursing staff. Around the time of the advent of the NHS, aspiring nurses required only 12 weeks of training. Nowadays, nursing is a research-based profession, involving a minimum of three years’ training at university to degree-level, and the reassignment of many tasks that used to be carried out by junior doctors.
From meticulously following doctor’s orders in the beginning, today nurses often plan and deliver all forms of patient care, and benefit from far greater autonomy; in many cases, nurses and doctors make joint decisions on medical treatment.
As not only a female MP but also the Conservative Party’s vice chair for women, I am naturally extremely proud of the pioneering roles women have played in the development of healthcare in this country. Nursing itself owes much to the legacies of two of Britain’s leading ladies, Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. And, in this centenary year of female suffrage, women must also take some of the credit for embracing these radical changes in the system.
From a profession predominantly made up of single women, with titles such as sister and matron and uniforms in a fetching pink, nurses nowadays predominantly wear shades of blue and men make up 11% - or one in 10 members – of the workforce.
Today’s NHS is the UK’s largest employer, and the world’s fifth largest, with 1.7million employees. Nurses make up 25% of the workforce, having increased fivefold from the foundations of the service 70 years ago. They make a huge difference to our lives, giving the best of themselves every day in our doctor’s surgeries, our hospitals, and our communities.
It is absolutely right Theresa May has chosen to mark the NHS’s anniversary with an increase of £20.5billion to its budget, alongside a ten-year plan for the future. As part of our national identity, we must do everything we can to support the NHS, as it supports us.
Maria Caulfield is the Conservative MP for Lewes and party vice chair for women