Care and Crisis: Making Beds in the National Health Service

Agnes Arnold-Forster, Victoria L Bates*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


In July 1979, the Sunday Mirror published an article with the headline: “HOSPITALS AT CRISIS POINT: Jobs and beds to go in cash curbs.” In this article we explore the role of hospital beds in such public discussions of “crisis” within the British National Health Service (NHS). In the 1970s, the media and politicians paid increasing attention to bed numbers as an indicator of resource scarcity within the NHS. While this in part reflected a genuine trend, it was also a powerful narrative device. The hospital bed has become a cipher for NHS resourcing and resilience, but throughout the twentieth century, there has been a tension between stories of declining bed numbers as a sign of “crisis,” and declining bed numbers as a marker of more efficient, high-quality healthcare. This article will show that the hospital bed was an extremely important political device because it was imbued with rich social and cultural symbolism, and that stories of declining bed numbers were not as straightforward as they first appear. While discussions in the public sphere tended to focus on bed numbers and waiting times, discussions in the healthcare sector and among policymakers attended to what beds could—and should—do for both patients and staff. Public rhetoric about decline was less about the object itself, and more about the role of the hospital bed as a symbol of care and as a politically pertinent shorthand for the health of the NHS as an institution.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of British Studies
Early online date16 Feb 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Feb 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s), 2024.


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