Hewitt: NHS changes will safeguard its values

Health secretary Patricia Hewitt has hit back at critics of the government’s reform of the NHS, insisting they were vital to ensuring the service’s core values were preserved.

“The changes that we are making are not simply compatible with the founding values but [are] the best way to ensure that we safeguard these values in times that are changing faster and faster,” she told a fringe meeting at the Labour conference in Manchester.

Ms Hewitt was speaking ahead of a showdown between unions and the Labour leadership later this week, when delegates debate a motion put by Unison that is highly critical of the government’s NHS reforms.

It notes that “immense damage” is being done to some local services because of more than £500 million of deficits and the “breakneck speed of change”.

“The major cause of the current crisis is a direct consequence of the move to a competitive, marked-based system, the continued use of PFI and payment by results,” the motion says.

The second day of strikes among NHS workers – the first in 18 years – is also due to take place on Wednesday, and thousands of NHS Logistics staff are expected to walk out in protest at the sale of the supply agency to private German firm DHL.

At this morning’s fringe, Dr Jonathan Fielden, of the British Medical Association’s (BMA) consultant’s committee, accused the government of ignoring doctors’ views on NHS reform.

“The attitude of the government is ‘don’t get in the way’,” he said, adding: “If I went around treating my patients the way the government treats patients I would be up before the BMA in danger of being struck off.”

Dr Fielden went on to criticise government plans to increase patient choice and introduce market-style reforms in the service.

“We do want choice.but if we have got a long-term condition like diabetes I want continuity of care. That’s the problem of marketisation – it’s disruptive of continuity,” he argued.

Recent staff lay-offs also came under fire. Dr Fielden added: “We have got the highest spending in the NHS ever but the largest redundancy programme ever.”

However, Ms Hewitt hit back, telling delegates: “The NHS is now facing increasing challenges, not just from an ageing population but also new costs of new treatments and the challenge of rising public expectations.”

She continued: “It is because of these three big changes we face that the NHS has to keep on changing.”