The National Health Service came into existence in 1948. It gave all citizens of the United Kingdom health care coverage, with the cost covered purely by taxation.

William Beveridge
William Beveridge

Continuing a Plan

Prior to the arrival of the NHS, Britain’s health care system was organised according to the 1911 National Insurance Act, which gave medical coverage to workers (part paid by the worker, part by the government) and benefits to the unemployed.

However, during World War II the political establishment decided that more had to be done to repay the people who had sacrificed so much for the country. An idea was put together to rid society of the 5 Great Evils: squalor; ignorance; want; idleness; and disease. William Beveridge, an economist, was asked to compile a report on how society could improve (and pay for such improvements).

In 1942, Beveridge published his report. ‘The Beveridge Report’ outlined the idea of Britain having a welfare state with everyone in the country having a ‘national minimum’ – meaning the government would help those who were in the lowest economic class. Within this idea was the idea of creating a national health service that could treat all its citizens.

The NHS was formally proposed in a government white paper
The NHS was formally proposed in a government white paper

1944 White Paper

There had been some disagreement about exactly what the NHS should involve. A 1944 white paper finally stated the principles of the NHS:

Services were provided free at the point of use
Services were financed from central taxation
Everyone was eligible for care (even people temporarily resident or visiting the country)

The paper said local councils should look after medical care.

A New Government

Before the 1945 General Election the Labour Party promised to introduce the NHS.

They duly won, with Clement Attlee replacing Winston Churchill as the Prime Minister.

Aneurin Bevan was given the job of setting up the NHS. He looked at a 1944 report that suggested local councils managed health care. Deciding this would not work – local councils had neither the money nor organisation – he said there had to be a national service.

Bevan is often called the ‘father of the NHS’, although the title is also given to William Beveridge who wrote the 1942 report.

Aneurin Bevan
Aneurin Bevan

The NHS Begins

England, Scotland and Wales all had separate NHS acts, but they were all introduced around the same time. By 1950 all had the NHS.

The Spirit of ’45

The NHS is part of a movement now labelled ‘The Spirit of ’45’ in which Britain attempted to country a fairer post-war country. Millions had died in the war and it was felt a better, more caring society was needed.

Note

The UK was not the first country to introduce universal health care: the USSR had it in 1937, but it did not cover the countryside.

New Zealand was the first country to manage complete universal health care, introducing it from 1937 to 1941.

The UK government's top two expenses remain elements of the welfare state: social protection and health care
The UK government’s top two expenses remain elements of the welfare state: social protection and health care