Time to Party Like it’s 1948: Happy 70th Birthday NHS!

By Dylan Brethour, Associate Editor 5 Jul 2018

As the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday, the right to health still has the power to transform our lives. So, what exactly is the right to health, and how is it protected today?

“No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means,” Aneurin Bevan famously declared.

As Health Secretary in Prime Minster Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government, Bevan was one of the key architects of the NHS. Born into a working-class Welsh family, he understood the important leveling effect of free health care. The creation of the NHS was a major victory for egalitarianism, and it is still celebrated as one of the UK’s crowning achievements.

During its long history, the NHS has overseen pioneering medical procedures – from test tube babies to the country’s first heart transplant. The doctors and nurses of the NHS have also played a key role in safeguarding our right to health.

So, how does the NHS help protect our rights and, on its 70th birthday, is it still in rude health?

“A Milestone in History”

Clement Attlee
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Before the NHS, the UK’s healthcare system was teetering on the brink of disaster. During World War Two, the UK’s hospitals had been administered by charities and councils. The influx of World War Two victims, combined with a lack of investment before the war, had stretched the system to breaking point.

In 1945, Clement Attlee’s Labour government was elected on the basis of a manifesto promise to transform the nation’s healthcare. With Attlee’s entry into power came Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, an outspoken advocate for working people and social justice. Bevan was determined to provide a healthcare system that would be available to everyone, paid for by general taxes, and free at the point of delivery.

The idea was met with opposition from both doctors and the Conservative party. Even some members of the Labour cabinet expressed doubts about how best to run the new system. However, Attlee’s government pressed forward and the NHS was created by the National Health Service Act (1946).

The NHS was launched, two years later, by Nye Bevan at Park Hospital in Manchester. The first patient was 13-year-old Sylvia Diggory, who remembered Bevan telling her “that it was a milestone in history – the most civilised step any country had ever taken.”

A Right to Health?

We love our NHS sign

Image: Birmingham Eastside/ flickr.com

The right to health is recognised globally as a fundamental human right. It’s included in the 1946 World Health Organisation Constitution and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also guarantees “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

The UK is a signatory to the ICESCR, so it is bound by international law to protect the right to health. However, what that means in practice depends on a country’s resources. According to the ICESCR, the right to health is subject to ‘progressive realisation’.  This concept recognises that a country’s lack of funds may prevent it from providing certain health services immediately, but it still requires that governments improve care as soon as sufficient resources become available.

For a wealthy, developed nation like the UK, however, an argument that the state lacks sufficient resources to provide all individuals with basic healthcare is unlikely to carry much weight with the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors state compliance with the ICESCR.

Of course, the law can’t guarantee that we will always be healthy. Viruses, unfortunately, are not very interested in judges (unless you sneeze on them). Instead, the right to health influences the institutions and social conditions that help support our well-being.

Why More Rights Equal Better Health

Image: Roger Blackwell/ flickr.com

The past 70 years have seen a transformation in our collective health. Life expectancy has risen drastically, and there have also been huge improvements in the treatment of disease. While there is still a long way to go, mental health services are also getting better. All these reforms contribute to the pursuit of the “highest attainable standard” of health for individuals, as required by the ICESCR.

And the ICESCR isn’t the only way that human rights can influence health care. The Human Rights Convention (which is incorporated into UK law through the Human Rights Act) also helps to protect patient’s rights. Provisions like the right to life (Article 2) call on the state to protect suicidal patients. Other key rights have been used to improve care for victims of rape and people with disabilities. 

The Future of the NHS

Junior doctors protesting
Image: Rohin Francis/ flickr.com 

Seven decades after its creation, the future of the NHS is far from clear. Sir Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office, recently expressed concern that the government’s spending hike may not be enough. “As we mark the 70th birthday, political leaders should be leading a debate about where we want this national asset to go, and they should aim high,” he told the Guardian.

Morse was concerned that the money would not be sufficient to meet the needs of the UK’s aging population. Other observers have also argued that too many NHS services are being provided by private companies.

So, after breaking out the streamers and party hats, let’s keep on appreciating our NHS. The right to health is always worth celebrating – and protecting.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

About The Author

Dylan Brethour Associate Editor

Dylan is a freelance journalist and editor living in London. She has an MA in Transnational Studies from University College London. Dylan is interested in how the media can work to support human rights.

Dylan is a freelance journalist and editor living in London. She has an MA in Transnational Studies from University College London. Dylan is interested in how the media can work to support human rights.