Today is the 75th anniversary of the National Health Service. There is very little to celebrate. Waiting lists are at record highs: 7.4 million waiting in England, and counting. Practically every international comparison ranks the NHS as mediocre to poor on outcomes. Well-above average funding is being funnelled into the health service, yet it doesn’t seem to be making its way to staff salaries or to the frontlines for additional care.
What’s worse, all these criticisms applied to the health service before the pandemic hit. The further deterioration of services since Covid is bringing to light all of its current – and previous – failings, as people increasingly ask if the system is fit for purpose.
The NHS’s most avid supporters are running out of explanations – and excuses – for its poor service. No one seriously claims anymore that the NHS is the ‘envy of the world.’ Certainly no international ranking says so. But there is one pillar that still seems to be holding up the NHS shrine: the argument around historical funding.
The NHS may be receiving a record amount of cash, the logic goes, but it was starved during the Tory party’s austerity years. Now, it can never catch up. ‘If you have a look at the investment that government should have put in,’ said Dr Phil Banfield, chairman of the BMA UK council, leading up to the birthday this week: ‘If they were investing up to the European average over the last 10 years, they’re over £40 billion short.’ In other words, the damage is done: if only 13 years of successive Tory governments had funded the health service as well as neighbouring countries did, the NHS would be on top.
This last line of defence makes a very basic – and almost universally accepted – assumption: that compared to other developed countries, the NHS has been underfunded by the government for over a decade.