Britain's public health service at 75: On life support?
Deeply loved but wracked by crisis, Britain's National Health Service (NHS) on Wednesday marks 75 years since it was founded as the Western world's first universal, free healthcare system.
In a secular age, the NHS is the closest thing Britain has to a national religion -- devoutly cherished, with levels of public support higher than the royal family or any other British institution. It was founded three years after World War II by a pioneering Labour government on the principle that everyone should access top-quality healthcare funded by general taxation, free at the point of care. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose parents were an NHS doctor and a pharmacist, paid tribute last week as he outlined a 15-year plan aimed at recruiting hundreds of thousands of new health staff.
"For every minute of every day of every one of those 75 years, the NHS has been kept going by the millions of people who've worked for it. To them on behalf of a grateful nation, I want to say: thank you," he said. "I feel a powerful sense of responsibility to make sure that their legacy endures. And to make sure the NHS is there for our children and grandchildren, just as it was there for us."
Like Sunak's parents, immigrant staff were pivotal to the NHS's early growth, helping to remake the face of Britain itself in the decades after the war. Its centrality to national life was underscored in a memorable dance sequence featuring NHS staff and patients during the opening of the London Olympics in 2012. Justin Bieber remixed his hit "Holy" with an NHS choir for Christmas 2020, in a year when the public, clapping on their doorsteps, paid tribute to medics battling the COVID pandemic. Sunak's new work force plan, however, is recognition that the NHS is under unprecedented strain following the pandemic, even though the government spends nearly 12 percent of its budget on healthcare -- by far its single biggest item. Demoralized doctors and nurses have been striking for better pay, an aging and unfit population needs ever-more complex treatment, cancers go undiagnosed for lack of scanners, and hospitals are crumbling. Sumi Manirajan, deputy chair of the British Medical Association's junior doctors committee, accused Sunak's Conservative government of failing to value doctors.
"And what that leads to is doctors leaving the country, going abroad, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and actually it's the public that loses out," she told AFP at a protest rally by striking doctors.
"The government (ministers), they may use private health care but the ordinary citizen in the UK uses the NHS, relies on the NHS."
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