UK plans to reverse controversial health service reforms

A leaked white paper reveals ideas to change Britain’s NHS

SOUTHPORT, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 03: NHS Test and Trace staff begin Covid-19 testing at a drive in centre to track down a South African coronavirus variant found in the area on February 03, 2021 in Southport, United Kingdom. Health authorities have found more than 100 cases of a coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa,  prompting a scramble to deploy new testing initiatives across eight areas in England. It is thought the variant is more contagious, but not more deadly, than the variant that has predominated in England throughout the covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
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The UK Government plans to reverse controversial reforms of the National Health Service and return greater control to ministers.

Proposed changes would reduce the involvement of the private sector, with fewer contracts put out to tender – a reversal of policies adopted by the ruling Conservative Party in 2012, when it was led by David Cameron.

If adopted, the leaked plan would mean the current administration is scrapping policies it has spent years defending from critics in the health service.

The plans to roll back reforms have attracted early criticism from political rivals.

They asked why the government wasn’t focusing on treatment waiting lists, which have soared as the service battles Covid-19.

“Ministers need to explain why reorganisation is the pressing priority when 190,000 people are waiting more than 12 months for treatment and cancer survival rates need to be radically improved,” opposition health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said.

Dr Fiona Lemmens, chairwoman of the Liverpool NHS Clinical Commissioning Group, said it would be a “challenge” for NHS reforms to be considered while the service deals with the pandemic.

“We should always be looking to improve. Continuous improvement is what I would be aiming for rather than massive overhauls,” Dr Lemmens said.

The draft policy paper, which says Health Secretary Matt Hancock would take more direct control over NHS England, admits to failures in the previous policy of introducing public health care to market competition.

“[The] regime in place put competition as the organising principle for improvement in NHS care. This has, in some cases, hindered integration between providers. In practice, the NHS has not operated as the market,” the draft white paper says.

The plans would enable the government to block hospital closures and overrule healthcare managers. Ministers are also seeking new powers, including adding fluoride to the public water supply to tackle tooth decay and putting warnings on unhealthy food to reduce obesity.

The white paper says there will be “enhanced powers of direction for the government” so that “decision-makers overseeing the health system at a national level are effectively held to account”.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt backed the proposals.

“Last year was the first year in history where, across the world, there were more over-65s than under-fives, so we are all having to deal with this big change in our health provision of the growth in older people and what that means is you need a lot more joined-up care,” he said.

“The structures need to be improved to make that possible and I think that’s what these reforms are intended to do, so I think they could be very positive.”

In the 2012 reform, initiated by former health minister Andrew Lansley in 2012, much day-to-day control of the service handed to bosses at NHS England.

A white paper is expected as early as April.