Cameron stands behind unpopular NHS reform plans

Mon, Feb 13, 2012, 00:00

BRITISH PRIME minister David Cameron has rejected demands to scrap plans to reform the National Health Service in England, despite mounting fears among his own Conservative ranks that the legislation could destroy their chances at the next election.

The legislation, which gives GPs control of over £60 billion (€71.6 billion) in NHS spending, has been repeatedly amended in the Commons and Lords.

However, it will have to be changed further this week if the peers’ support is to be maintained.

Despite calls to sack secretary of state for health Andrew Lansley, the prime minister has continued to support him, saying yesterday that there would always be objections to changing the NHS, even when it was urgently needed.

“Choice, competition and transparency may unsettle some people. But it’s these things at the heart of our reform that will lead to the better NHS I care about and which our country deserves,” Mr Cameron said.

For now, the Liberal Democrats, who have secured concessions but who remain deeply wary of the reform, are ready to continue supporting Mr Lansley’s ambitions, if they secure more changes in the Lords this week.

However, Lib Dem deputy leader, Simon Hughes, made clear that the price of that support would be the removal of Mr Lansley in the expected summer reshuffle, once the legislation had come into force.

“I’m clear we need to move on from this Bill. My political judgment is that in the second half of parliament it would be better for [him] to move on,” said Mr Hughes, who is the most senior Liberal Democrat not serving in ministerial office.

Several Conservative cabinet ministers are said to have privately criticised Mr Lansley’s handling of the health and social care Bill, with one suggesting that the government’s problems were now on the scale of the 1980s poll tax revolt.

Before the 2010 election, Mr Cameron, who spent many nights on NHS wards before his son, Ivan, died in 2009, did much to convince voters the NHS “would be safe” in Conservative hands.

Now, however, party strategists fear much of that work has been undone. A YouGov poll on the reforms in yesterday’s Sunday Times showed only 18 per cent support them; 48 per cent are opposed, while 34 per cent say they are do not know.

Mr Cameron’s support surprised many from the beginning, given that the Conservatives/ Liberal Democrats already had a full reform agenda – particularly since Mr Lansley’s plans were not included in the Conservatives’ own election manifesto.

Critics argue that GPs will be incapable of handling the administrative burdens offered by Mr Lansley, leaving them to contract the work out to private companies – thus partly privatising the NHS by the back-door.

Labour MP Andy Burnham highlighted last week’s warning from a senior NHS manager that large numbers of NHS hospitals are now failing to treat patients within the 18-week deadline set down by Labour.

Critics were further enraged yesterday after it emerged that management consultants, McKinsey – which would be likely to bid for such GP contracts – had offered thousands of pounds worth of hospitality to top health regulators.