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Life and death without the NHS

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As the Tories push more of the health service into the private sector Sarah Ensor spoke to people who remember the grim reality of privatised healthcare before the NHS was set up 65 years ago this month
Issue 2361
The Tories would love to take us back to a time without the NHS

The Tories would love to take us back to a time without the NHS

Tory health minister Jeremy Hunt announced last week that he plans to charge people from outside the European Union for visiting GPs. The money this will save is insignificant—but he has two reasons for introducing the charge.

First it encourages people to blame “health tourism” for problems in the health service. Second if the Tories can get GPs to charge some people it will be much easier to start charging everyone for all kinds of health services. They want us to us to accept the idea of paying for healthcare.

The NHS celebrated its 65th birthday last week, but the Tories have hated it since it was set up. There are still people who remember what it was like to live under a privatised health system—how expensive it was and how little you got for your money.

Doug and Doris Smith were both born in Sydenham, south London. They now live in Lewisham and are active in the local Pensioners’ Forum and Save Lewisham Hospital campaign.

Doug said, “You never called a doctor because there was no money. If you had a temperature you sweated it out with camphorated oil and an old sock round the neck. We had lots of home remedies—my mum would make us drink onion juice.”

Doris was born in 1930 in the front room at home. She said, “Mum didn’t know she was having twins. We were three and a half, and three pounds, that was a sign Mum wasn’t eating very well.” Doris’s twin only lived six days.

It cost two shillings and sixpence to call out the midwife—about £20 in today’s money. That may not seem much, but Doris said, “My Dad was more out of work than in. He was a roundsman, delivering for bakers and dairies.”

Her parents paid a few pence a week into a healthcare insurance scheme. “The money was collected weekly at the door. We saved it for emergencies. My Dad thought that when an emergency came up it would cover everything—but it didn’t.”

The cost of seeing a doctor was a constant worry, even for people who regular work.


Colin Didlick was born in 1942 in Withington Hospital, south Manchester. He remembers, “My parents weren’t badly off but my sister and I were poorly and it cost two and six to see the doctor.

“My grandmother’s doctor in Longsight was known for being a bit socialist so my mother would take us over there. He’d say ‘pay me when you can’ and see two or three children for the price of one.”

When the NHS came in people queued to see a dentist for the first time or to get glasses. Doug said, “Before that, if you had a bad tooth it just got taken out—families would have a whip round for the cost of your teeth out for a birthday present. What they are doing to the NHS feels now like we’re going backwards.”

Gwen Vardigans was a nurse for 45 years and is active in York Defend the NHS. She was born in Hull in 1948 just before the NHS started. Her mother had high blood pressure and needed a caesarean and weeks of bed rest.

The cost of the consultant was £21. It almost doubled once the costs of the hospital stay and the theatre were added. The six bills she had to pay were the equivalent of more than £1,300—similar to what the US health system would charge now.

Gwen said, “There was no option other than to pay, but my dad didn’t have the money. Luckily, my grandfather was a publican and he paid my mum’s bills.”

Now Jeremy Hunt wants to make people turn away from the NHS. As the shortages of beds and staff get worse he tries to shift the blame onto migrants or tourists. But the BMA doctors’ organisation overwhelmingly voted at its conference two weeks ago to reject checking patients’ eligibility to use the NHS. Jackie Turner, a GP in east London, spoke for the motion.


She told Socialist Worker, “As doctors we want to treat people who need healthcare. We’re not interested in where they come from or whether they can pay.” The real cause of the crisis is the government’s £20 billion of cuts to the healthcare hidden behind talk of “efficiency savings”. 

But the NHS remains one of the cheapest and most efficient health services in the world. Annually £2,170 was spent for each person in Britain, a 2011 report showed. The equivalent figure in the US was £4,950—and this was despite the fact that a smaller proportion of the population have access to healthcare in the profit-driven American system.

Retired nurse Gwen took part in the NHS’s 65th birthday celebrations. She said, “I think a carnival atmosphere is fine but the NHS is being hollowed out. I’ve been a diabetic for 30 years and the NHS keeps me alive.”

Now trade unions representing millions of workers have called a demonstration to defend the NHS outside the Tory Party conference on 29 September in Manchester. Gwen said, “We’re going to book a bus and go over to Manchester.” 

If we don’t join the fight and support health workers fighting cuts we’ll return to a time when only the well off got proper care—and the rest of us had few teeth and saw our friends and families die early.

National Save our NHS demo – Sunday 29 September Outside the Tory Party Conference in Manchester. Called by Unite, Unison & GMB unions

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