Across the Atlantic, battle rages over value of NHS

Prime Minister and Health Secretary leap to defence of health service after attacks by Obama's opponents

Gordon Brown has broken his diplomatic silence over the health reform row dominating American politics to speak out in defence of the National Health Service.

The NHS has been caught in the crossfire as Republican critics of President Barack Obama's plans claimed that Britain's "socialised" rationed care to the elderly and left the sick languishing on waiting-lists.

Ministers had been reluctant until yesterday to become involved in a controversy splitting public opinion in the US. They did not mount their defence of the NHS against claims it is "Orwellian" and "downright evil" through the conventional means of speeches or statements, but to add their support to a campaign standing up for the service. The sheer number of messages added to the welovetheNHS campaign on the social networking site Twitter, launched to counter the US allegations, crashed part of the site yesterday.

Among the comments was one from Downing Street stating: "PM: NHS often makes the difference between pain and comfort, despair and hope, life and death. Thanks for always being there." Mrs Brown, who is on holiday with her husband in the Lake District, added: "welovetheNHS – more than words can say."

The Health Secretary also added a message via Downing Street. It read: "Andy Burnham: Over the moon about strong support for NHS – an institution I will defend to my dying day, 2nd only to Everton FC."

Mr Burnham explained yesterday that it was his job to defence the service when it faced criticism that was "simply untrue".

The Department of Health took the unusual step yesterday of launching a point-by-point rebuttal of misconceptions about the NHS circulating in the US – each followed with the words: "Not true." A DoH spokeswoman told the Associated Press: "People have been saying some untruths in the States. There's been all these ridiculous claims made by the American health lobby about Obama's health care plan and they've used the NHS as an example. A lot of it has been untrue."

Claims being disputed by the DoH include the assertion that patients aged over 59 are denied heart repairs and women under 25 are not allowed screening for breast cancer.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, has also defended the service, saying he believed in it "100 per cent", adding: "It's incredibly important to me and my family."

President Obama has dispatched Democrat senators on a series of town hall meetings to win support for his health plans. They have found deep hostility to proposed reforms. A man was in custody yesterday after holding a sign reading "Death to Obama" outside a town hall meeting on the subject in Maryland.

The former Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, has called President Obama's health plan "downright evil", claiming it would create a "death panel" denying care to the neediest Americans.

A Republican National Committee advertisement claimed that "individuals lose their right to make their own health care choices" in Britain. Another launched this month by the anti-tax group Club for Growth claimed that UK civil servants had calculated six months of life to be worth £14,000.

"Under their socialized system, if your treatment costs more, you're out of luck," it claimed as footage of an elderly man weeping at a woman's bedside alternate with shots of the Union Jack and Big Ben.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa told a local radio station last week that "countries that have government-run health care" would not have given Senator Edward Kennedy, who suffers from a brain tumour, the same standard of care as in the US because he is too old. Another Republican, Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia, said Britain and Canada "don't have the appreciation of life as we do in our society, evidently".