Healthcare in Britain: the end of an era?

Combien de personnes dans le monde ont-elles compris la référence au NHS (National Health Service), le système de santé britannique, lors de la cérémonie d’ouverture des JO de Londres ? Très peu sûrement, mais les Britanniques, eux, n’ont pas manqué cette référence à leur cher et tendre NHS qui constitue la fierté nationale de l’Etat providence britannique d’après guerre. Pourtant aujourd’hui les choses ont bien changé…


The British National Health Service was created in 1948 by the Labour government led by Clement Attlee who won a landslide election over Churchill after the Second World War. Attlee’s government introduced major social reforms but the most important one was the NHS, which gave every British citizen free healthcare from cradle to grave. It symbolised the glory of the welfare state in the eyes of the British people and to this day British parties must still voice their support for the NHS in order to remain electable. However in the 1970s, free medical treatment became impossible due to the economic climate. Therefore, the conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major forced a competitive approach upon the NHS and introduced a new system of governance: health authorities were replaced by self-governing trusts. One of the direct consequences was that a patient could be denied some of the more expensive treatments.

In March 2012, Cameron’s government passed a bill that restructures the whole NHS system; this bill was the subject of one of the longest debates in the Houses of Parliament, lasting over a year. Despite its unpopularity, Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health, fought hard to pass this bill. Jeremy Hunt recently replaced Lansley after the latest government reshuffle, which showed a swing of the Cameron government to the right. However the new Secretary of State for Health has had close relations with the controversial press magnate Rupert Murdoch, so his appointment is unlikely to improve the popularity of the government.

On top of that, the symbol of the welfare state is becoming a lucrative private company, which is now even exporting its brand overseas. Indeed, the government is helping British hospitals to embed their activities in countries such as the Gulf States or China where British medical skills are well regarded. Moorfields Eye hospital in London has for example already opened a branch in Dubai and Great Ormond Street hospital provides training and support for paediatric services in Dubai and Kuwait. The government claims that exporting the NHS brand will benefit the UK’s health system. Moorfields Eye hospital’s turnover is now £5m and it provides £500, 000 for activities in the UK. However, people fear that this business will disrupt the organization of UK medical centres where the waiting lists are already very long.

Furthermore, widespread pay cuts for staff have been announced. The NHS is one of the world’s largest employers with around 1.5m staff, so opponents are concerned that these cuts will worsen the NHS hospitals’ waiting lists as health workers might be tempted to leave for the private sector or abroad.

The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic games portrayed the NHS with pride. But for how long will Britain be able to take pride in a symbol with no substance – a “medical haven” for rich foreigners and a medical nightmare for the British people?

See video: Cameron “Delivering on our promises”

Audrey HOLMES & Eloïse CHERIER


2 thoughts on “Healthcare in Britain: the end of an era?

  1. Très bel article, abondamment documenté! Entre deux commentaires de texte, c’est toujours agréable, pour une “khagneuse”, de se replonger dans l’actualité, britannique, qui plus est… Merci et bravo!

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