NHS changes: Clegg says plans must go ahead

Andy Burnham on Labour's reaction to the government's NHS plans

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Planned reforms of the NHS in England must go ahead, despite fresh criticism from MPs, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said.

The Commons health select committee is expected to say that plans to scrap primary care trusts and other changes are hampering efforts to save billions.

Mr Clegg said ministers had gone "a long way" to address concerns, and that the NHS could not be "frozen in time".

But Labour said the "reckless re-organisation" must be halted.

Plans to restructure the NHS in England and devolve more power to GPs, included in the Health and Social Care Bill, are going through Parliament.

But despite a host of concessions by ministers, professional bodies representing GPs, nurses and midwives, as well as health service unions, are calling for the whole plan to be abandoned.

'Damning indictment'

Mike Farrar, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, an independent group which represents those who work in the NHS, he was deeply concerned about the financial pressures on the NHS and the impact it would have on patients.

"The full implications of this remain poorly understood outside the NHS, partly because politicians are reluctant to stand up and explain them," he said in a statement.

"If we are to keep the NHS sustainable in the long term, we need to be honest that this will mean fundamentally reorganising they way we deliver care in the best interest of patients.

"Some local hospital services will need to close or move into larger specialist centres. We also desperately need to strengthen care provided in the community."

The cross-party health committee of MPs is now reported to have raised its own concerns, concluding that the plans are making it more difficult to achieve the target of £20bn efficiency savings by 2014-15.

The NHS is often referred to as the nation's most treasured asset, and that is why plans to change it always prove controversial.

There has been growing opposition to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's reforms. Initially, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives said they were willing to work with ministers on the Bill, but last week they called for it to be scrapped.

And if Mr Lansley thought he could count on the support of his own MPs, including a former health secretary, he was wrong.

The influential health select committee says trusts are resorting to cutting services to meet their budget targets - even though the health secretary had pledged that would not happen.

Politically, the government's reform of the NHS in England may be over the worst hurdles, but that does not mean it will be an easy ride from now until the big bang in 2013 when GPs finally get control over the purse strings.

The Observer quoted the committee's report, due to be published next week, as saying: "The reorganisation process continues to complicate the push for efficiency gains.

"Although it may have facilitated savings in some cases, we heard that it more often creates disruption and distraction that hinders the ability of organisations to consider truly effective ways of reforming service delivery and releasing savings."

The committee is made up of MPs from all parties and chaired by ex-Conservative health secretary Stephen Dorrell.

Mr Clegg told the BBC's Andrew Marr show he would consider the report and there was a "legitimate question" about how the structural changes would "interact" with efforts to make the NHS more efficient and productive.

But he said the NHS could not stand still at a time when it was having to deal with an ageing population and a rapidly rising cost of medical treatments.

"We have gone a long way to allay the concerns about the original blueprint of these reforms," he said.

Health minister Simon Burns said reform was essential to create efficiency savings and ensure the NHS was sustainable.

"Our modernisation plan will put more power in the hands of doctors and nurses which means we are able to slash bureaucracy, saving £4.5bn that will be reinvested in better NHS services for patients," he said.

'Monumental mistake'

But shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said the plans were badly thought out and wrongly timed.

Start Quote

It is time for David Cameron to listen to what doctors, nurses and now his own senior MPs are saying and call a halt to this reckless reorganisation”

End Quote Andy Burnham Shadow health secretary

"The NHS right now is facing the biggest financial challenge in its history, so to reorganise now is the worst possible thing, because it needs stability to face that financial challenge.

"But what in particular am I opposing? In the end this bill is a privatisation plan for the NHS and that is why there is such huge disquiet about the bill."

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has already changed some of the proposals - in particular a bigger role for private firms - following splits in the coalition and opposition from within the health service.

Under the plans, GPs are being put in charge of much of the NHS budget while the health service is being opened up to greater competition from the private and voluntary sector.

On the ground, changes are already being made to pave the way for the new system to start in 2013.

For example, although the doctors' union is against the plans, there have still been enough GPs coming forward to pilot them in 97% of the country.

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