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The 70th birthday of the NHS is a cause for both cheers and tears

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When Aneira Thomas, the first baby born in the NHS – who went on to have a 28-year career as a nurse, recently saw a statue in Cardiff of the man who designed the health service, she cried.

The statue of Aneurin Bevan had an orange traffic cone on its head. But it wasn’t the cone that upset Aneira.

She was travelling to London, at the invitation of nurses and junior doctors, to talk about the origins of the NHS in light of current cuts to services.

“I was thinking I was going up there to speak about him, and my gratitude to him for what he gave to Britain. He protected us,” she said.

Aneira, who was born at one minute past midnight on Monday 5 July 1948, is now approaching her 70th birthday – as is the NHS.

It was at Unison’s annual health conference in Brighton this week that she recounted seeing the statue of the Welsh politician, often referred to as the architect of the NHS.

During her speech, to an audience of union members who were about to begin three days of debate about campaigning matters, she spoke of her love for the health service, both personally and professionally.

“The NHS was revolutionary. It changed lives for the better,” she said, remembering a story from the 1930s about her family’s piano having to be sold to pay the doctor to operate on her grandfather’s broken leg.

“Maybe it was destiny; I worked for 28 years as a nurse in a mental health hospital,” she went on to say. “Every day was a challenge” working in a hospital with patients with conditions such as psychosis, schizophrenia and severe depression, she said, adding: “It was hard work. But I loved it”.

“Aneira also owes her life, and those of her two children, to the NHS”

Her four older sisters also worked in the profession – and one is still nursing to this day. And her two aunts were matrons during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. “So we’ve given a lot of TLC, I hope,” she told the conference.

Aneira also owes her life, and those of her two children, to the NHS – she suffers from anaphylaxis, and they have both had brain haemorrhages.

But beneath her heartfelt tributes to those who campaign for the NHS, and the thanks to staff who had cared for her and her family, you could sense the frustration.

She made some pointed remarks about underinvestment in the service today and the pay freezes that employees – including her paramedic daughter – have had to endure.

“We know the NHS is underfunded and the money is there. We know staff are overworked and underpaid. We know that services have been cut and that this is the government that has caused it,” she said.

“The NHS would not ever have come into being without long meetings and liaising with health professionals”

Considering the audience of union reps and campaigners, it would have been easy for Aneira to end her speech with a tirade about the dismantling of NHS services and staff working conditions.

But she didn’t. Instead, she chose to calmly remind the audience of a passage from Michael Foot’s biography of Aneurin Bevan.

“The NHS would not ever have come into being without long meetings and liaising with health professionals.

“It was designed with a recruitment drive to employ doctors, nurses, midwives, medics, and to improve salaries.

“This figured prominently in the plan, and, looking further ahead to end the exploitation of nurses and hospital workers, which had prevailed almost unchallenged for generations,” she said, urging the conference delegates to keep fighting for the service they believed in.

At a time when severe pressure on staff and services has become an everyday experience, it felt important to be reminded of some of the straightforward reasons why a statue in Cardiff with a cone on its head could make someone cry: the NHS was designed to change lives for the better, for both patients and staff.

In 2018, in the service’s 70th birthday year, maybe it’s acceptable to bring both tears and celebrations to the party.

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