IT was 70 years ago today that the National Health Service started work. After decades of discussion about reforming Britain’s health provision, the Second World War saw the Coalition Government led by Winston Churchill commission the Beveridge Report which said the post-war Government should fight the five “Giant Evils” of society – squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease, with the immediate emphasis on the latter.

Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 general election led to the National Health Service Act of 1946 – the Scottish NHS Act did not pass until 1947 and interestingly made the Secretary of State for Scotland the responsible minister here.

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The ambitious starting date was set for July 5, 1948, and thanks largely to health minister Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, the target was achieved. More than 2,700 hospitals and health institutions, usually run by charities or local authorities, became NHS establishments from that day, and tens of thousands of doctors and nurses – most of the latter getting pay increases – donned NHS apparel for the first time.


BEVAN went to Davyhulme Park Hospital in Manchester, now Trafford General Hospital, where he met the official “first patient”, 13-year-old Sylvia Diggory, who was suffering from a life-threatening liver condition.

Later, Diggory recalled their meeting: “Mr Bevan asked me if I understood the significance of the occasion and told me that it was a milestone in history – the most civilised step any country had ever taken. I had earwigged at adults’ conversations and I knew this was a great change that was coming about and that most people could hardly believe this was happening.”

Most people also hugely supported the NHS from the start, though not everyone did so.


EVEN with Labour’s huge majority, Bevan and the Clement Attlee Government faced huge obstacles, not the least of which was the Tory Party in Westminster which spoke out against the plans and voted time and again to veto them.

Lord Horder, a consultant, said: “If medicine were taken over by the state, it would be as disastrous as was the domination by the Church in the Middle Ages; a greater disaster, because the Church was cultured.”

Doctor’s union the British Medical Association was still threatening to boycott it until as late as February of 1948, with a staggering 17,000 out of 20,000 registered GPs voting to refuse Bevan’s terms, until he increased them.

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Bevan’s greatest and most stupid opponent was wealthy industrialist Sir Bernard Docker who was chairman of Westminster Hospital and spoke for the Hospitals Association. His wife, Norah, was the greatest society celebrity of her day.

Docker came across as a rich man who resented money for the poor and sick. Bevan recalled: “Who could be luckier than that?

He described the National Health Service Bill as a mass of ‘mechanism in which the patient will get caught and mangled’ and as providing for the ‘mass murder of the hospitals’. I remember meeting a deputation led by the good knight. After listening to him and to his case I knew that the way ahead was quite clear.”

A letter in the British Medical Journal described Bevan as “a complete and uncontrolled dictator” and the doctors who had co-operated in creating the NHS were called “quislings”, but the Welshman stuck to his guns.

On opening day Bevan says with classic understatement that the NHS’s gestation “was not always trouble-free.”


MOSTLY favourable, especially in Scotland. Even the Daily Express wished it well.

There’s always an exception, however. The Daily Mail editorial on Saturday, July 3, stated: “On Monday morning, you will wake up in a new Britain – in a State which ‘takes over’ all citizens six months before they are born.”

Yup, some things never change.


AS the Scottish NHS recently stated: Nearly all doctors, dentists and opticians were taking part. There were 425 hospitals with 60,000 beds.

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Patients flooded in, especially for spectacles and dentures. Dr Mark Fraser, then a young doctor in Edinburgh, recalled: “We had seen the grim poverty in which people lived and the fact that they had no access to a doctor unless they could pay – and they couldn’t pay.

“It was that sense of optimism and the consensus view that the NHS was a ‘damn good thing’ that allowed the NHS in Scotland to overcome the difficulties of inadequate resources, an antiquated infrastructure and the overwhelming demands of an enthusiastic public.”