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Politicians clash over use of private providers

Health spokesmen from the three main political parties clashed over the use of private providers to deliver NHS care in the first national election debate on health. 

Health Secretary Andy Burnham reiterated his support for the NHS to be given priority as the preferred provider of care saying this was a “common sense” policy at a time when it was important to give stability to staff.

He was responding to a question by BMA chairman Hamish Meldrum who asked why the three main political parties were continuing to push for NHS care to be delivered by competing commercial organisations when three quarters of the public said they did not want it.


“The evidence is that this leads to fragmentation, loss of accountability and an increase in costs,” said Meldrum.


Burnham said they had brought in new providers in last decade to give people choice at a time when they were expanding capacity. 


But now he was signalling change to prevent alienating staff from the process of change which could threaten the progress the NHS needed to make.  


The NHS had to be ruthless in challenging underperformance but should be given the first chance to rise to the challenge, he declared.


Conservative shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley argued: “Patients have a right to expect that the NHS can secure best possible care wherever it can be found and that will be in NHS services and institutions but also with any other providers who can deliver it and we have seen many good examples of that.”


Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said he had been really impressed by the work of an NHS treatment centre in Nottingham where NHS surgeons were delivering a 20% increase in productivity.

“Sometimes using a competitive challenge in the way services are provided can be a good thing. Sometimes it would be necessary in the very tough financial climate that we face. When improving the quality of care there must be no special favours,” he said.

There were further angry skirmishes over local closures of A&E and maternity units. Burnham – annoyed that Lansley had been campaigning in his Greater Manchester constituency where there are controversial plans to reorganise children’s and maternity care – accused his rival of saying what people wanted to hear by promising to stop forced closures.

Lansley responded that he was not against change but proposals needed reviewing to ensure they were not against the interests of patients. 


Lamb said sometimes difficult decisions had to be taken and the key was to ensure local accountability. This was something that could be delivered by a Lib Dem proposal to establish locally elected health boards.

All three politicians promised to protect frontline jobs except those of managers and bureaucrats. 

The hustings were organised by the BMA, the Royal College of Nursing, the King’s Fund and the NHS Confederation.

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