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Last Updated: Friday, 13 May, 2005, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
NHS use of private sector to rise
Patricia Hewitt
Patricia Hewitt was formerly trade and industry secretary
Use of the private sector to carry out NHS operations will double in the next five years, Patricia Hewitt has said in her first speech as health secretary.

She told an audience of NHS managers she was determined to carry on "the pace of reform" of her predecessors.

Ms Hewitt said 3bn will be spent on private sector treatment over five years to pay for 1.7m operations.

And NHS figures released ahead of her speech have shown waiting lists and times have fallen again.

Hospital choice

The money will pay for the second wave of independent treatment centres, which carry out non-urgent surgery, and more private operations to help create a patient-led NHS, Ms Hewitt told a conference in Birmingham.

It will mean the number of operations carried out by the private sector, but paid for by the NHS, will rise from 5% at the moment to between 10% and 15%.

This is delivering on, not departing from the fundamental founding principle of the NHS
Patricia Hewitt

The government is using the private sector to ensure patients are treated more quickly and are offered more choice.

From the end of this year, patients will be given the choice of five hospitals, including one from the private sector, for treatment.

But doctors and NHS managers have complained that the reliance on the private sector will take work away from the NHS, potentially putting hospitals under threat.

The health secretary said using the private sector would help ensure faster and better treatment for patients so that by 2008 no patient would have to wait longer than 18 weeks from GP referral to treatment.

Speaking at the conference, organised by NHS Employers, which represents health service managers, she said: "There will be no let-up in the pace of reform and no change in the direction of our modernisation.

"This is delivering on, not departing from the fundamental founding principle of the NHS that treatment is available to everybody, free at the point of care."

And she admitted - as her predecessor John Reid did - that the drive could lead to hospitals closing.

"If services aren't attracting patients because they're not good enough then of course everything possible has got to be done to improve those services so they do attract patients.

"If they can't do that then yes, they may have to close."


This is really the destruction of the NHS
Professor Vincent Marks

But Vincent Marks, professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Surrey, said: "This is really the destruction of the NHS.

"Once you start farming it off into private enterprises the NHS as we understood it will gradually disintegrate."

And Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley added: "I do agree in principle the independent sector should have a right to supply to the NHS.

"But not the sort of contracts the government is signing. They (independent sector providers) get more money than NHS would do."

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the King's Fund, a health think-tank, said while using the private sector in such a way had "obvious advantages", there were still "potential pitfalls".

"This will have significant implications for NHS institutions and core services, as well as the training of doctors."

And British Medical Association chairman James Johnson said he was concerned the move could destabalise the NHS as the private sector would only take on the most straightforward cases.

Ms Hewitt, who was previously trade and industry secretary before taking over at health in the reshuffle last week, has also championed latest figures which have shown patients were being treated faster.

The number of people waiting over six months for an operation at the end of March was 40,800 - a 32.5% fall on the previous month.

The overall waiting list also fell slightly to 821,700 - down by 2.8% on the previous month.

And a report by the NHS chief executive Sir Nigel Crisp showed the health service was ahead of target for treating heart and cataract patients.

Watch Patricia Hewitt's speech

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