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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 11:23 GMT
Tories unveil NHS plans
The Conservatives have committed themselves to the principle of a National Health Service free at the point of delivery.
But, in a major speech on Tuesday, shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox said that the Tories would also encourage the development of a much bigger independent sector to supplement the work of the NHS.
This would include tax breaks to boost the private healthcare insurance market.
Dr Fox also committed his party to spend the same amount on the NHS as the current Labour administration.
He said that the NHS should concentrate not on how many people it treats, but on ensuring that the sickest are treated first.
"We are fully committed to a comprehensive NHS, free at the point of use and funded from taxation.
"I have also repeatedly made clear that we rule out charges for access to NHS care, and for any specific procedures covered by the NHS."
Dr Fox believes it is "inconceivable" in an era of rapid advances in medicine that a healthcare system funded from taxation alone could ever fully meet demand.
He said: "I have no problem with people obtaining healthcare in the private sector if they can afford to do so and that is their choice.
"Conservatives must never forget that choice is in itself a good thing - and also that such extra choice in healthcare should be available to the many, not just the wealthy few."
Dr Fox said that the NHS should stop trying to provide all forms of healthcare itself.
Provided the service was free to patients, it should not matter if they were treated in an NHS or private facility.
"What is important is when the patient is treated and the quality of that treatment," he told his audience.
To this end, the Tories would enable the NHS to purchase services more freely from the private sector.
The party would also introduce tax breaks to encourage more people to take out private healthcare insurance.
Employers national insurance payments on private healthcare insurance schemes would be abolished, along with taxation on employees as a benefit in kind.
Limits on the amount of time that consultants can work in the private sector would be abolished.
A Tory government, Dr Fox said, would abolish Tony Blair's Waiting List Initiative on its first day in office. This would free up £340m for priority areas of care, he said.
Labour's policy of trying to cut 100,000 from the in-patient waiting list had led to hospitals being forced to treat the maximum number of patients, rather than those necessarily in the greatest need.
Dr Fox promised to ensure the sickest patients were treated first.
He said: "Our Patient's Guarantee will give a guarantee to patients, beginning in cardiac and cancer services, that they will be given a specific maximum waiting time for treatment decided by their consultant.
"It will be set specifically for their individual case and not arbitrarily by politicians for the "average" patient."
Return of matron
Dr Fox announced his intent to reintroduce matron posts within the NHS.
The idea would be to provide a clear chain of command throughout a hospital so that there is someone personally responsible for overseeing and supporting nursing staff.
Nurse training would also be reformed to encourage a "wide and flexible" skills base.
Changes to nurse rotas would be designed to ensure that more medically-trained nurses were available in the winter months when they were most needed, while surgically-trained nurses were available in greater numbers in summer when surgical activity is at its peak.
The Tories would also seek to reverse Labour's "politicisation and centralisation" of the NHS by setting up a fully independent Appointments Body.
"Those appointed to positions in the NHS will be three for the expertise they can bring to the system, not the political loyalty they will show to their political masters."
However, Health Secretary Alan Milburn said: "This is not a big idea for the NHS, it is a bad idea for the NHS.
"The Conservatives are committing themselves to cuts of at least £500 million out of the health service to pay for tax perks for private medicine.
"The price for Tory tax breaks for a few will be fewer doctors, fewer nurses, less equipment and poorer hospitals.
"Patients will suffer from these crazy Tory health plans."
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Nick Harvey said: "Liam Fox is tinkering at the edges with targets and tax breaks.
"The Tories would waste money on subsidising private health care when what the NHS really needs is more doctors and nurses."
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