The first person to be born in the NHS, nearly 70 years ago, addressed health delegates in Brighton this week, with a striking observation.
“I worry that, for the majority of people, the NHS has always been there,” said Aneira Thomas. “They don’t remember a time before it, or they were not born then.
“And perhaps the further from that historic day we get, the easier it is to take the NHS for granted, and for expectations to get too high.
“There are often negative views about A&E waiting times,” she added. “It appears that as a country we are less grateful that we have an A&E and ambulances to take us there – with no fee to pay.”
As UNISON and many others prepare to celebrate the NHS’s 70th anniversary this year, Ms Thomas spoke of the night in 1948 when her mother – who had been in labour for 18 hours and was about to give birth – was asked by doctors to ‘hold on’ for a few more minutes.
“They knew we were moments away from starting our National Health Service and wanted me to be born into it. So my brave mum took a deep breath and held on.”
Her parents recognised the significance of Bevan’s dream, and accordingly gave their new-born daughter a female version of the politician’s first name. It wasn’t long before she was also known as Nye.
A miner’s daughter, she said that when her father once broke his leg in the mine, the doctor held him down on the kitchen table and operated, without anaesthetic. The family later had to sell the family piano to pay him.
“This was the kind of suffering that motivated Nye Bevan. And he didn’t just have a vision about changing the future – he did it.”
Ms Thomas gave delegates an example of the virtue of the NHS: all of her grandparents died between the ages of 30 and 50; but her mother lived to 95, and Ms Thomas, nearing 70, is still alive to have met her 65 great-grandchildren.
She worked for 28 years as a nurse in a mental health hospital. “It was hard work but I loved it. I felt I was born to do it.” And many of her family have done the same.
And of course they’ve often benefited from NHS care themselves, not least Ms Thomas, who suffers from anaphylaxis (“without the NHS I would not be talking today”) and her son and daughter, both of whom were successfully treated after brain haemorrhages.
Ironically, her daughter Lindsey, a paramedic, experienced a delay in an ambulance reaching her. “Talk about cuts. It broke her heart as well as mine,” her mother told the delegates.
And while suggesting that “Bevan would be proud” of the way that the NHS has developed since its foundation, saving ever more lives, she also warned that “the moral values that were there at the start should stand today.”
The UNISON member said that the trade union movement is “as vital now as ever” in ensuring that.
As for today’s chronic underfunding of services and staff, she said: “We know this is the government that has caused that. And we know a change of government is needed to ensure the NHS is there for future generations.”