THE BLOG
05/07/2013 06:11 BST | Updated 03/09/2013 06:12 BST

Freedom From Fear

One of the defining moments of last summer's Olympics was Danny Boyle's opening ceremony tribute to the National Health Service; a spectacle of performers dressed as Mary Poppins and acrobats in surgeons' scrubs doing cartwheels on giant luminous beds.

Boyle's extravaganza sent the clear message that free universal healthcare is one of the greatest and most valued things in British society. As the NHS celebrates 65 years this week many millions of people in the UK will be able to say that they, or someone they love, wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the free health service we're lucky enough to have.

When my son was being born a year ago, his heart rate started to fall after his mum had been in labour for ten hours. The amazing midwives, who had been helping throughout, immediately called a doctor who was there in minutes, and five minutes later a healthy happy baby was born. Just another cheerful daily NHS miracle, available to everyone, rich and poor, free at the point of use.

This is why there has been a huge backlash in the UK to the current government's attempts to slowly privatise the NHS. It is deeply loved by British people.

We are so lucky, compared to many countries across the globe, where getting treatment when you're sick, delivering a baby or getting medicines for a poorly child are commodities that can only be bought by those with money, rather than being the birthright of everyone.

Imagine the heartbreaking dilemma faced by mothers daily in the poorest country. Do I spend my tiny savings on malaria treatment for one child, meaning that the other children will have to go hungry this week? These were the dilemmas poor British people faced before the birth of the NHS after World War II.

Charging for basic healthcare is pushing 100 million people every year into poverty and is causing nearly a quarter of a million African children under 5 in to die needlessly because their parents can't afford to pay for treatment.

Health user fees have been internationally condemned, by the likes of the World Health Organisation, yet they continue to exist in many poor countries and donor support for getting rid of them remains unacceptably low. I have met poor families who have had relatives imprisoned in hospital until they could find money to pay. Others are promoting and implementing social or voluntary insurance schemes as alternative to fees, but these do not work either. No matter how low the charges, this is still an out-of-pocket expense that many of the poorest and most vulnerable people cannot afford. Basic healthcare should be free.

Making healthcare free at the point of use is proven to work. When the government of Sierra Leone, with the support of British aid, decided to implement free healthcare to pregnant women and children in 2010 the number of people accessing healthcare shot up by 60 per cent and the number of people dying from malaria dropped by a massive 90 per cent.

A government watchdog report out earlier this week said that the UK should be doing more to encourage poorer countries to strengthen their health systems and that this approach would have a far greater impact on tackling malaria, rather than distributing mosquito nets and drugs alone. Instead of private hospitals for the rich and piecemeal charity provision for a few of the poorest which is deeply inefficient, what works is universal publicly provided free healthcare for all. Just look at the United States, which spends twice as much on healthcare as the UK, but where 50,000 people die every year because they don't have the money to pay.

This kind of care is affordable. When the UK introduced the NHS, we had the same income per person as China does today. Oxfam has been calling for global action to tackle tax dodging in poor countries, as this is depriving developing country governments of billions of pounds of lost tax revenue. This money could be used by poor countries to build better health systems, to pay doctors salaries and provide medicines to those people who are currently too poor to pay for treatment.

I truly believe we could see a future where the poorest countries are equipped with the support and ability to provide decent, free healthcare for all. Nye Bevan, the architect of the NHS, talked about universal healthcare as 'freedom from fear'. No one on earth should live in daily fear of falling ill because they can't afford the healthcare to survive.