Blair: Past decade has ‘saved’ the NHS

The past decade has seen Labour save the NHS, Tony Blair said today ten years after his famous election warning of “24 hours to save the NHS”.

A decade ago the crisis in the health service was such that people were asking whether it had a future, but today the argument focuses on the nature and direction of that future, Mr Blair said today.

Addressing the King’s Fund think tank, the prime minister urged his critics to focus on improvements in the NHS, pointing to “real and transformative” improvements such as shorter waiting lists, investment in staff and NHS stock, improvements in cancer care and “immensely more positive” patient experiences.

“If you look back over this last decade, it has got better, there are real changes happening, yes it is an enormous challenge,” he argued.

Mr Blair continued: “If you think about the challenges we face, and where the service is happening, at least we’re having an argument about how to improve it, not how to prevent it from collapsing. That is a real change.”

However, amid increasing discontent among NHS personnel – including the call two days ago from junior doctors to sack the health secretary Patricia Hewitt – Mr Blair conceded “real challenges” remain, and the government “obviously” has a great deal of work to do to regain confidence and support.

Nevertheless, Mr Blair insisted the reforms implemented by Labour had been worthwhile. “Ultimately patients will pick these reforms as being essentially right”, he insisted, adding no future government would turn their back on them.

Conceding that many NHS employees remain less than convinced, he said the NHS, like any major corporation, finds it “tough” to keep people onside during difficult periods, but ultimately people agree reforms are for the better.

Similarly, he argued the NHS is like a multinational company working in a changing global economy. The changing context of healthcare is forcing reforms on the NHS, making direct comparisons with past performances difficult. An emphasis on day surgery, for instance, makes it unhelpful to focus on bed numbers, he argued.

As Mr Blair urged people to take a ten-year perspective to recognise the improvements in the NHS, the Liberal Democrats argued the government is overly dependent on spin.

Department of Health (DoH) spending on opinion polling rose by £229,000, the Lib Dems reveal, while it has spent more than a third of a million pounds on focus groups in the past three years.

Health spokesman Norman Lamb said it was “disgraceful” the DoH could be spending money on focus groups while the health service is “shedding” jobs and services.

“Anyone who has used the NHS can see what’s wrong with it: too many central diktats which leave hospitals in debt as they are forced to prioritise political targets rather than patient care,” he said.

The Conservatives add the public want to know where the additional investment in the NHS has gone, warning Mr Blair and Gordon Brown they have little cause for self-congratulation.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: “After ten years of Labour’s financial mismanagement we have patients being told they can’t have operations, nurses on the brink of strike action, maternity units and accident and emergency being threatened with closure, 10,000 talented junior doctors being left without jobs and the public now realise that a Conservative government is the best way to save the NHS.”