How old is the NHS? Who founded National Health Service and when - as it celebrates 73rd anniversary in 2021

The occasion has been marked by the Queen bestowing the George Cross on ‘all NHS staff, past and present, across all disciplines and all four nations’

How old is the NHS? Who founded National Health Service and when - as it celebrates 73rd anniversary in 2021 (Photos: Getty Images)
How old is the NHS? Who founded National Health Service and when - as it celebrates 73rd anniversary in 2021 (Photos: Getty Images)

Often referred to as the jewel in the crown of our nation, the NHS has been providing free-at-point-of-use healthcare since its foundation in 1948.

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Who founded the NHS?

Though it didn’t launch until a couple of years later, the legislation which brought the NHS into being was passed in November 1946.

Labour’s firebrand health minister, Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan was responsible for the passing of the National Health Service Act for England and Wales - with separate legislation produced for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Bevan had been instrumental in securing some of the key aspects of the NHS that we have today.

The idea of some kind of public health service had been floated since the 1920s, but it really picked up traction towards the end of the second world war.

In 1943, social economist William Beveridge published a seminal report, titled “Social Insurance and Allied Services” which would lay the groundwork for the NHS, and the welfare state more broadly, to be put in place.

When Clement Attlee’s Labour government won a landslide general election victory over Winston Churchill’s Conservatives in 1945, Labour took the conclusions of the Beveridge report and sought to expand on them.

Bevan pushed for the welfare state to be further reaching than Beveridge has envisioned where healthcare was concerned.

He insisted that the NHS would be totally free at point of use and funded entirely through income taxation, meaning the rich subsidised healthcare for poorer people.

NHS services would be available universally, meaning that tourists or foreigners living in Britain temporarily would be entitled to treatment at any NHS institution.

In the years to come, some elements of this universality and entirely-free principle would be watered down slightly.

Bevan resigned as Labour minister in 1951 when the government introduced charges for dental and vision care.

What was healthcare like before the NHS?

Prior to this, the quality of healthcare available was very mixed and relatively expensive, with many people paying insurance costs, while poor people tended to struggle to access anything beyond rudimentary healthcare.

A visit to the doctors in 1930 would have cost around three shillings and sixpence, or the equivalent of £28 in today’s money.

This cost was almost entirely prohibitive for poor people, with knock-on effects for the health of the nation.

What is the George Cross?

To mark the NHS’ 73rd anniversary, the Queen has awarded the George Cross to the National Health Services of the UK, recognising all NHS staff in all four nations.

The award to the NHS marks only the third occasion on which the George Cross, which may be awarded posthumously, has been awarded to a collective body, country or organisation, rather than an individual.

In a personal, handwritten message, the Queen said NHS staff have carried out their work “with courage, compassion and dedication” for more than 70 years.

In her message, on Windsor Castle-headed paper, the Queen wrote: “It is with great pleasure, on behalf of a grateful nation, that I award the George Cross to the National Health Services of the United Kingdom.

“This award recognises all NHS staff, past and present, across all disciplines and all four nations.

“Over more than seven decades, and especially in recent times, you have supported the people of our country with courage, compassion and dedication, demonstrating the highest standards of public service.

“You have our enduring thanks and heartfelt appreciation.”