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The Birth of the NHS – July 5th 1948

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The facts, figures and quotes that shaped the history of the National Health Service

  • On 5 July we start together, the new National Health Service. It has not had an altogether trouble-free gestation. There have been understandable anxieties, inevitable in so great and novel an undertaking. Nor will there be overnight any miraculous removal of our more serious shortages of nurses and others and of modern replanned buildings and equipment. But the sooner we start, the sooner we can try to see these things and to secure the improvements we all want. My job is to give you all the facilities, resources and help I can, and then to leave you alone as professional men and women to use your skills and judgement without hindrance. Let us try to develop that partnership from now on.’
    - Aneurin Bevan, The Lancet, 1948

  • On July 5 1948 the National Health Service took control of 480,000 hospital beds in England and Wales. An estimated 125,000 nurses and 5,000 consultants were available to care for hospital patients.

  • The NHS Act, brought before parliament in 1946, was created as part of a social welfare policy under Clement Atlee’s Labour government which aimed to provide universal and free benefits to all those in need.

  • The service was based on recommendations in the 1942 Beveridge report which called for a state welfare system. According to William Beveridge, a nationalised health service was just one way Britain could help beat want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.

  • The principles of the NHS were to provide a comprehensive service funded by taxation, available to all and free at the time of need.

  • With continued food rationing, a housing shortage, spiralling tuberculosis death rates and on the back of an exceptionally severe winter the inception of a welfare state could not have come at a better time for post-war Britain.

  • In its first year the NHS cost £248m to run, almost £140m more than had been originally estimated.

  • In 1948 it was estimated there was a shortage of 48,000 nurses. By 1952 the situation improved, figures show there were 245,000 whole time equivalent nurses.

  • Nurse training became strengthened the same year by the professional regulator, the General Nursing Council, which improved its education syllabus. Strict educational requirements for new entrants to the profession, which had been relaxed during the war, were re-implemented and the foundations to build the profession were laid.

  • Nurses clearly took to heart the words of then Chief Nursing Officer Dame Elizabeth Cockayne: ‘We find ourselves doing things with patients and not just for them as previously, leading them to self direction and graduated degrees of independence. As a profession we need to become increasingly self-analytical and to examine what we are doing and why.’

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