The National Health Service was launched on this day, 73 years ago. It was created to give everyone a high standard of healthcare from cradle to grave. After all this time, it remains one of our most beloved and enduring institutions.
And while the NHS belongs to every man, woman and child in the UK, it has its roots firmly in Wales.
Before the NHS, healthcare was meagre, fractured, and unaffordable for many, but the need for healthcare was no less pressing. The solution was devised in Welsh mining communities.
Mining brought wealth and opportunities to the valleys, but it came with the challenges of injuries and industrial disease. Workers in the valleys rightly saw it as unjust that, after toiling in the mines, many were not able to access healthcare.
Workmen’s medical aid societies were our solution to this and are the forefathers of today’s NHS. Miners pooled together their resources, contributing a portion of their earnings to schemes which employed doctors for their members. Soon this expanded to the families of miners and other workers. In return they received medical care when needed, and some schemes administered sick pay.
Perhaps the most advanced of these schemes was in Tredegar, the birthplace of former Labour Minister for Health and Welsh national hero, Nye Bevan. At its peak, Tredegar Medical Aid Society had more than 20,000 members and covered the medical needs of 95% of Tredegar’s population. At the time, it was regarded as the best in the country.
Bevan was certainly proud, and allegedly declared “All I am doing is extending to the entire population the benefits we had in Tredegar for a generation or more. We are going to Tredegar-ise you.”
I believe the NHS does have a flavour of Tredegar in it, and indeed of the valleys. Here, we genuinely care for each other and wouldn’t leave anyone wanting for lack of money. This caring spirit and universal approach is at the heart of the NHS. It is not a safety net, but a high-quality service open to all who need it.
While I wholeheartedly support these principles, I fear that those in Government in Westminster do not share these values. We are fortunate that here in Wales we have had a Labour led Government for the last 21 years that has done much to protect our NHS as a public service but chronic underfunding from central government hampers us from being able to provide the service we so badly need. We know that poverty and health inequalities have led to higher death rates from Covid here in our valley communities, and we know too that we desperately need the funds to pay our key workers and adequately resource our NHS to face the post-Covid challenges of frighteningly high backlogs.
The NHS rose magnificently to the challenge presented by the pandemic, but at the cost of the lives of 1,500 health and social care workers. Had the NHS been better resourced, these lives need not have been lost. During the pandemic, it seems that UK Government’s priority was not to ensure that our NHS staff had the equipment they needed and the pay they deserved, but to feather the nests of their wealthy donors and friends.
In November, the National Audit Office raised concerns about Covid-19 contracts awarded to the private sector worth £17bn due to lack of transparency and potential conflicts of interests. Only this week we have heard that Lord Bethell, a UK Tory Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care, failed to declare meetings with firms who went on to receive £1bn in Covid contracts. And the UK Government has announced their solution to backlogs: paying private hospitals £10bn to treat NHS patients.
In Wales, throughout the pandemic, we have been sheltered from cronyism with Welsh Government taking a fairer, and more responsible approach to PPE procurement. Wales had one of the best vaccine rollouts in the world.
It is now time for us to channel the spirit of Nye Bevan and the Clear Red Thinking that led to the creation of the NHS and make sure that throughout the UK it is a truly public service. UK Government would do well to follow Welsh Government’s lead and push back firmly against the rising tide of privatisation. We must invest in our public services, and our people. It is past time for a pay rise for our NHS staff and for key workers across our society, who have worked so hard since the start of this pandemic. They have more than earned it.