Since its birth, the NHS has periodically seen off financial crises, charges of unsustainability, and wheezes to fund healthcare in new ways. Is this time any different?by Nicholas Timmins / March 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Back in 1974, one of my first press conferences as a health reporter was at the British Medical Association (BMA). Such events were then a rarity, although they were soon to become anything but. Shortly after, and for the first time in the history of the National Health Service, hospital consultants were working-to-rule (doing the minimum required by the rules of their contract) over Barbara Castle’s attempt to take private practice out of the NHS—while junior doctors, again for the first time, took industrial action over a new contract. Shades of today, hey?
In a measure of how fast things can change, George Godber, chief medical officer and NHS founding father, had declared in his annual 1972 report that “in time of need for myself or my family, I would now rather take my chance at random in the British National Health Service than in any other service I know.”
Two years on, however, the outgoing Conservative government had slashed spending to cool an over-heating economy, in which—unlike today—inflation was rampant. Like now, the NHS was desperately short of money. It was plagued by strikes from ancillary staff and some nurses over pay differentials. Waiting lists—nobody measured waiting times then—were rocketing. The media had been called to the BMA’s majestic, red-brick Lutyens-designed headquarters to be told that the service was in crisis.
The press conference was conducted by Derek Stevenson, the BMA’s secretary and a former major in the Royal Army Medical Corps, who combined a cavalry officer’s dash with Rex Harrison’s good looks and a top consultant’s bedside manner. He conducted press conferences in morning dress while chain-smoking his way through untipped Senior Service cigarettes.
Stevenson demanded a £500m cash injection—a monumental sum given that the total NHS budget was only £3bn—and a Royal Commission. He declared that the money had to be found somewhere—from where almost didn’t matter. He came out with ideas for hotel charges in hospital, top-up insurance, charges for GP visits, an extra health stamp, or even a sweepstake. “The fundamental thing,” he thundered, fist crashing down on the table, “is that it cannot go on like this.” In what is now the standard refrain of the NHS, he said that “morale has never been lower.”