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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 04:08 GMT 05:08 UK
Johnson promises 'personal' NHS
Alan Johnson
Mr Johnson said the NHS should be more convenient for patients

Health Secretary Alan Johnson has set out plans intended to make the NHS more user-friendly for patients in England, in his Labour conference speech.

He said patients should be treated close to home and GP surgeries should open "at times and in locations that suit the patient, not the practice".

He also outlined plans to tackle health inequalities and boost the fight against hospital infections.

Health is expected to be a key battleground at the next election.

Speculation that Prime Minister Gordon Brown may call an autumn poll has grown after his leader's speech on Monday.

Proud record

Mr Brown did not refer to the election talk during his speech, but in a series of media interviews, he refused to rule out calling an early election.

In his speech, Mr Johnson criticised the Conservatives, saying at worst they were a "major risk" to the NHS and were "unfit to govern".

Mr Johnson said Labour had a "proud record" of increasing investment, staff and survival rates in the NHS - but now wanted to move away from "top-down structural change" to concentrate on better patient care.

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The government would reshape the NHS in England to become "clinically led and locally driven" and trying to treat patients close to home where possible.

"GP surgeries should be open at times and in locations that suit the patient, not the practice," he told conference delegates.

"Pharmacies, sports centres and high street walk-in centres can do much more to provide primary care effectively and conveniently."

Earlier, he told the BBC he did not want a "confrontational approach" with GPs and hoped to work with them to develop a "much more convenient service" for patients.

Childhood obesity

In his speech he said it was "unacceptable" that people in poor areas were likely to die younger than those in richer areas.

More GP surgeries were needed in deprived areas to help tackle health inequalities, he said, and to work, not just on curing illness - but on prevention measures.

After the smoking ban, faster progress was needed on tackling obesity in children and adults, he said.

Nothing I say here will convince anyone in the health service that the staged pay increase was fair
Alan Johnson

And he said he wanted a regulator to tackle hygiene standards in NHS and private hospitals - with the power to investigate and close down wards where standards were not being met.

"Too many patients feel insecure in hospital because of their fear of infection," said Mr Johnson.

He said progress had been made on tackling MRSA but said the battle against clostridium difficile "must be intensified".

Matrons 'empowered'

Matrons and nurses will be empowered to "use their expertise to fight infection on the front line," he said.

Mr Johnson also said "too many" hospital staff were suffering intimidation and violence at work, and pledged personal safety alarms for those who needed them and better training on handling aggressive patients.

But on the controversial issue of public sector pay, he acknowledged in a question and answer session later: "Nothing I say here will convince anyone in the health service that the staged pay increase was fair."

The health secretary has not explained how more personalised care will be delivered or what the role of the private sector will be in delivering it
Norman Lamb
Lib Dems

But he added: "I would hope people would put that in the context of what we have tried to do on pay and conditions for the past 10 years."

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said Labour had presided over "ten years of missed opportunities and contradictory reforms" and dismissed his announcements as "delayed, diluted and duplicated".

"Up and down the country people are campaigning to keep their local maternity and accident and emergency units open," he said. "Conservatives will fight to save district general hospitals while Labour continue their reviews to end them."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb dismissed Mr Johnson's speech as "gimmickry and re-spun policy".

"He has failed to answer the fundamental question of where Gordon Brown is taking the NHS.

"The health secretary has not explained how more personalised care will be delivered or what the role of the private sector will be in delivering it."

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