‘This is really the destruction of the NHS,’ Vincent Marks, professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Surrey and a long-standing supporter of the Labour Party, said yesterday.
He was infuriated by new Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt’s announcement of the doubling or trebling of NHS operations carried out by private ‘independent treatment centres’ from five per cent to ten to fifteen per cent of all NHS operations in the next five years.
Hewitt told an NHS managers conference in Birmingham £3 billion will be spent out of the NHS budget on private sector treatment for NHS patients over five years to pay for 1.7 million operations. Hewitt also said that medical training ‘could be carried out by the independent sector’. She warned: ‘There will be no let-up in the pace of reform and no change in the direction of our modernisation.’
Professor Marks warned: ‘Once you start farming it off into private enterprises, the NHS as we understood it will gradually disintegrate.’
He told News Line: ‘It’s a disaster. It’s a deliberate attempt to break up the NHS. The private sector creams off the easy stuff, it always does. The NHS is left with the more complicated and serious work, so politically it is seen to be more expensive. To say there isn’t innovative work in the NHS is nonsense. When I was working in the NHS after the war we invented technologies that are still being used around the world.
‘The PFI is another disaster. They build hospitals but they don’t have the staff and the equipment because the money is going into the PFI. The government is fulfilling Tory policy but with money. It is very distressing. The NHS needs to be restored to what it was. The NHS has been neglected. They’ve been running a first class service with a third class input. One is anxious it may have gone too far already.’
Commenting on Hewitt’s plans, Mr James Johnson, chairman of the British Medical Association, said the government must ensure competition ‘does not destabilise NHS services’. Johnson added: ‘The government is planning to expose the NHS to greater competition with the private sector, but has so far failed to explain satisfactorily what will happen to hospitals that cannot compete. It would be unfair if specialities such as Accident and Emergency – which the private sector has been less interested in providing – were undermined because NHS hospitals were unable to survive in a competitive market.’ He concluded: ‘We are still waiting for clarity from the government on the ways private health providers will offer training.’
UNISON Head of Health, Karen Jennings said: ‘What a disappointing start to a third term Labour government. The new health secretary has hardly had time to draw breath, let alone listen, and here she is rushing headlong into the arms of the private sector.’ Jennings added: ‘This latest announcement doubles the amount of money going into the private sector at the expense of the NHS. The Government’s limit of 15 per cent private sector involvement seems to be turning into a target and that is bad news for patients and the NHS.’
Hewitt’s attack on the NHS followed new Work and Pensions Secretary David Blunkett’s attack on pensions the day before. Blunkett said the government will transform the Welfare State from a ‘safety net’, to one which ensures ‘people take responsibility for themselves’. On pensions, he added: ‘The issue is not tax versus saving, the question of how long people work. It is what people are prepared to do for themselves and how we as a government support, enable, facilitate them doing it for themselves, so that we don’t hand this over to the state and at the end of a working life say “now dig us out of poverty”.’
A spokesperson for Help the Aged told News Line yesterday: ‘Raising the State Pension age by five years, would increase by half someone’s chance of dying before even qualifying for the state pension. Help the Aged wants to see a compulsory system for employers to provide a minimum contribution to pension schemes and an end to a subsistence-level State Pension.’