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Last roar of big beast enlivens party conference

Not sure what made worse viewing at the Labour Party Conference: Sarah Brown’s second attempt to convince us that we should all love her husband (bit late for that), or TV personality Fiona Phillips’s declaration of love for Alan Johnson.

While both were pretty stomach churning, maybe the prize goes to Alan Milburn for his petulant cameo at a fringe meeting.

The former health secretary – and architect of the NHS Plan – sounded slightly desperate in his desire to influence current health policy. Milburn’s grand plan was to transform the NHS into a commissioner and have services delivered by a diversity of private companies. Unfortunately for him, it’s looking increasingly unlikely under New Labour.

Andy Burnham, the new incumbent, has seemingly taken a significant step away from a privatised NHS. He recently told an audience at the Kings Fund that the NHS is the government’s “preferred provider” of choice for services. 

This appears to indicate a softening of the pro-privatisation rhetoric of his New Labour predecessors and Milburn (one time consultant for venture capitalist Bridgepoint Capital, part owner of private health provider Alliance Medical) is clearly not happy about it.

Milburn, who is due to step down as an MP at the next election, warned that without fundamental reform the long-term survival of the NHS is in doubt. He called for more use of private contractors, greater devolution of power from the centre, abolition of strategic health authorities and the transfer of PCTs to local authority control.

Milburn also urged Burnham to press ahead with the foundation hospital programme saying every hospital in the country should achieve the status. 

It was a blast from the past. Ah, how we’ve missed the high-sounding rhetoric and the absence of evidence. When it comes to devolution and cutting bureaucracy he’ll find plenty of support, but on private sector involvement he’s still unlikely to find many followers from within the profession. It’s nearly a decade since the NHS Plan but we’re still waiting to be convinced about the role Alliance Medical, Netcare, et al, have to play.

How should these health providers be funded? By scrapping Trident and ID cards of course. I’m sure there’s more than one Brownite who would agree to both as long as Alan – and his mate Charles Clarke – did the decommissioning personally (preferably somewhere remote). 

But at least it has generated some debate. The problem with party conferences these days is that they’re now a procession of policy announcements rather than an opportunity to formulate them. There were announcements on cancer referral times, free personal care for older people and free hospital car parking for inpatients, but all raised more questions than they answered.

It sounded like the last roar of a big beast but his chance to shape the NHS has passed. Burnham is doing it his own way. Alan shouldn’t fret too much though; if he can get past his tribalism, he’ll soon see the Tories start where he left off. 

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