UK Politics

Row over NHS performance continues

Hospital ward
Image caption Fourteen hospital trusts have been investigated in light of their high mortality rates

The Conservatives are trying to "re-write" history about the performance of hospitals during Labour's years in power, an ex-health secretary has said.

The two parties have blamed each other for failings at 11 NHS hospital trusts with high death rates that have been placed under special measures.

Alan Johnson told the BBC that a "political operation" was going on to discredit Labour's record on the NHS.

Tory Stephen Dorrell urged all sides to tone down their "political rhetoric".

There were heated exchanges in the Commons on Tuesday as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt listed what he said were a catalogue of problems at the trusts concerned and said external teams would be sent in to work with managers to improve performance.

'Script re-write'

The action, recommended in an official review by NHS medical director Sir Bruce Keogh, comes after a leading health research group said its warnings about care shortcomings had been ignored for a decade.

The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson said Mr Hunt was seeking to portray himself as a champion of patients against failings in the NHS - the first time he could remember a health secretary taking such a position.

The Conservatives, he added, wanted to "re-write the script" on the NHS and move the debate on from the government's much-criticised re-organisation of the health service on to the performance of individual hospitals amid claims institutional failings had been ignored in the past.

All parties, he said, were having to grapple with how to manage the NHS at a time when unprecedented efficiency savings were being sought and amid warnings about a £30bn funding gap in the future.

Mr Johnson, who was health secretary between 2007 and 2009, said the Conservatives' arguments had changed since the publication earlier this year of the Francis report into the 2008 Stafford Hospital care scandal - which attributed no blame to politicians.

'Focus on outcomes'

"There is a political operation going on here," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Contrary to what happened over Stafford, when the prime minister presented the Francis report in a very statesmanlike and fair way.

"Something has happened between Francis and Keogh that is almost trying to re-write the Francis report."

Mr Dorrell, himself a former health secretary in the 1990s and now chair of the Commons Health Committee, said the political row was "completely divorced" from the wishes of patients who simply wanted politicians to focus on improving the level of care.

"Maybe politicians should apply their own rhetoric and focus on outcomes and efficiencies and allow the electorate to draw the conclusions rather than seeking to have an argument," he told Today.

Mr Dorrell said there should be a "shared agenda" across the political spectrum based on an acceptance the NHS must be much "more open about the clinical outcomes it achieves than at any time in its history".

The Keogh review - covering 2010-11 and 2011-12 - found problems including poor maintenance of operating theatres. backlogs in complaints, low levels of clinical cover and overworked staff.

Labour says these issues have been aggravated by government cuts.

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