The NHS is “one of the greatest achievements of civilisation”, doctors’ leaders have said.
When the health service was created 65 years ago, it marked the dawn of a new era.
As health secretary Aneurin Bevan opened Park Hospital in Manchester in 1948, the future of healthcare in the UK changed forever.
Prior to the creation of the NHS, care was largely provided by voluntary organisations and charities, which left millions of people with little or no access to good healthcare.
The new national service meant everybody could get their hands on treatment, whether they were a baker or a banker.
It was the first system of its kind in the world and people queued in the streets in the hope of getting treatment.
Dr Mark Porter, chair of council at the British Medical Association, said: “The British health service is unique in the world in terms of nobody else gets everything.”
He said it was a simple idea 65 years ago - to relieve people of the fear that they would be cared for only on the basis of their wealth, or their income.
“I think that’s an achievement that ranks with one of the greatest achievements of civilisation. It’s our duty to continue that to the 100th anniversary. “
Sixty-five years on, the principles guiding the NHS remain the same, although the health landscape has radically changed.
So what has happened in recent years and how can the NHS survive for future generations? There is no doubt the challenges facing the NHS now are different to those it confronted in 1948.
Then, Britain had recently emerged from a war and diseases such as tuberculosis, mumps and polio were common.
Healthcare had always been patchy, with lots of people simply “getting on with it” rather than seeking help.
Now Britain faces a rising tide of obesity and caring for an ageing population.
And recently the health service has been rocked by numerous scandals, hospitals going bust and full-to-bursting A&E departments.
There have been bitter disputes over the closures of units and investigations into high mortality rates.
The care crisis at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust between 2005 and 2009 shook the system to the core.
Inquiries into the scandal revealed that many patients were left lying in their own urine and excrement for days, forced to drink water from vases or given the wrong medication.
It was concluded that hundreds of people may have died unnecessarily due to poor care.
Indeed, police are investigating whether neglect at Stafford Hospital may have contributed to hundreds of patients dying.
In the aftermath of the public inquiry into the controversy, NHS officials announced that they were examining “higher than expected” mortality rates at 14 other trusts - the outcome of the inquiry will be published later this month.
In the wake of the scandals, ministers pledged a more open and transparent health service.
They introduced a raft of measures to remove a culture of “secrecy and bullying” including a statutory duty of candour for all organisations which provide care, a new ratings system for hospitals and care homes, and a requirement for all would-be nurses to work for a year as a healthcare assistant.
But since then a fresh NHS scandal has come to light.
Officials at the health and care watchdog, the Care Quality Commission, have been accused of covering up a failure to properly investigate Furness General Hospital, where a number of mothers and babies died.
Three senior officials at the regulator were alleged to have ordered the suppression of a damning internal review into its investigations of University Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital.
And medical groups have attacked the Government’s NHS reforms, which came into force on April 1.
The Health and Social Care Act, which initiated the biggest overhaul of the system since the NHS’s inception, has been dubbed the “mother of top-down reorganisations”.
The aim of the reforms, which became law after a tortuous passage through Parliament, was to make the NHS more accountable to patients and to release frontline staff from excessive bureaucracy and top-down control.
But many have said the reforms should not have been introduced while the health service was in the middle of a huge productivity drive - the NHS has been ordered to make £20bn in “efficiency savings” by 2015.
Nevertheless, there have been real successes in the last decade, including a reduction in waiting times and a decline in the number of patients who suffer hospital infections.
It is still the nation’s best-loved institution and was given a starring role in the Olympics opening ceremony.
The ceremony’s director Danny Boyle said he paid tribute to the NHS during the £27m spectacular because universal healthcare is one of the core values of British society.
More than 600 real-life nurses and other healthcare workers joined Boyle’s army of volunteers during the extravaganza.
The swinging sisters, dressed in 1950s uniforms, used luminous hospital beds to spell out the letters “NHS”.
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