Hewitt backs radical reform in NHS

The health secretary today backed radical NHS reforms, insisting they will benefit patients.

Patricia Hewitt confirmed the general hospitals model, where a range of services is provided in one place, might not be right for the 21st century.

“The NHS is a 1940s system operating in the 21st century world,” she said in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

“The test here is not who owns it – public or private – but whether they can provide the best service,” she added.

“Is this privatisation? Never. Is it changing the NHS? Absolutely.”

Her words come amid growing unease about the potential closure of hospitals. Public sector union Unison is angered by the government’s “wrong” approach, and next week there will be the first national strike in the health service in 18 years over the “sell off” of NHS Logistics to private delivery firm DHL.

“I know that these are difficult times for people right across the NHS,” Ms Hewitt admitted.

However, she insisted NHS values, including providing a free service, were “non-negotiable”, adding: “I believe that the change and reforms are the only way to safeguard those values for another generation.

“We’re changing the means to the end. To safeguard the values of the NHS we need to know how the world is changing and why the health service needs to change with it.”

Promising a more efficient service with a maximum wait of 18 weeks by 2008, she argued the deteriorating health of the nation meant the NHS had to “become a world leader in promoting independence as well as treating illness”.

Ms Hewitt said there would be no “artificial limits” on the role of the private sector in this new vision for the health service.

Her proposals could see as many as 60 “reconfigurations” in hospitals that would include the closure of A&E departments, cardiac care and paediatrics taken away from hospitals.

It was a “new form of public ownership”, which would see health services owned by members of the public rather than simply the government.

But unions and other stakeholders do not share this vision of the future of the NHS.

Unison’s head of health, Karen Jennings, said: “Patricia [Hewitt] has not spent her life in health or health policy, but all of the trade unions in health – all of the affiliates, all of the non-affiliates, Unison, the BMA, the Royal Colleges of Nursing and Midwifery – are all saying this is wrong.”

The chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA), James Johnson, warned that removing some services could lead to future closures and the whittling away of services.

The Conservatives claimed Labour is trying to cover up its failure by calling the changes “reform”.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: “Labour are trying to cover up for their failures in the name of reform. But it is their reforms that have flooded the NHS with incoherent and inconsistent policies and are responsible for constant upheaval.”