Angry unions hit back over private health

Crisis in the NHS » News of the use of Bupa hospitals enrages staff – as a reader explains his distress over poor care in a public one
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Health service unions warned of a "war" against Secretary of State for Health Alan Milburn last night as they launched an attack on government boosting the profits of private health "fat cats".

Health service unions warned of a "war" against Secretary of State for Health Alan Milburn last night as they launched an attack on government boosting the profits of private health "fat cats".

Accusing the Government of "back-door privatisation of the NHS", John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB, the general workers' union, warned: "They have absolutely tied themselves to public service delivery for the voters by the next election, at the same time as having a war with the trade unions over the private sector. It is not going to be deliverable."

His union claimed that comparisons in costs between the NHS and Bupa showed that basic surgery could cost £8,000 more in the private sector than in NHS hospitals.

Examples produced for the union by independent researchers showed that a cataract operation could cost the NHS £826 and up to £3,000 from Bupa. A hip replacement costs the NHS £3,899 but up to £9,000 from Bupa (see table).

Protests at greater use of the private sector – foreshadowed in the Prime Minister's interview with The Independent on Sunday last week – will coincide with a fresh review of the health service to be launched by the Labour Party in the New Year.

The Labour policy forum has been ordered by Charles Clarke, the party chairman, to review health policy as part of a rolling programme which will culminate in the programme for the next election manifesto.

The policy forum is likely to see clashes over the extent of private sector involvement, calls for prescription charges to be reformed, the removal of dental charges, and the idea of introducing "hotel" charges in hospitals. The Chancellor and Tony Blair have attacked the Tories over their plans to raise more health charges but one Labour source admitted: "New charges have not been ruled out."

Michael Jacobs, general secretary of the Fabian Society, said: "The Labour party policy process can help us to clarify the different kinds of public-private partnerships the party finds acceptable as a way of improving health care under NHS. That clarity is urgently needed."

The unions had planned to stage a full-scale battle with the Government over the increasing use of the private sector in public services at this year's party conference.

The row had to be put off because of the 11 September terrorist attacks, but the resentment has been growing in recent days.

Trade union leaders recently protested in private to John Monks, the leader of the TUC, at the Government's failure to listen to their objections. One union source said: "They have now alienated people like Monks who have supported New Labour. Monks bent over backwards last week to make a mass protest lobby of Parliament a celebration of the public services and they have given him a slap in the face."

The Fabian Society will use the policy forum to urge the party to back an earmarked NHS tax to fund the expansion of health spending, in spite of the Chancellor's reluctance to accept a hypothecated health tax.

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