Blair hails big expansion of private surgical clinics

Tony Blair will seek to shift attention from the David Kelly affair today when he announces a big expansion of private health care to cut NHS waiting lists.

The Prime Minister will use his monthly Downing Street press conference to disclose that a chain of privately run, fast-track surgical centres is to be extended to provide an extra 125,000 operations a year by 2008. The Royal College of Surgeons warned, however, that the clinics could be staffed by second-grade surgeons flown in for three-month periods by US, Canadian and German firms.

Mr Blair will make a brief statement on the death of Dr Kelly, the weapons scientist at the centre of the row over government intelligence on Iraq. He will insist that the inquiry led by Lord Hutton should be left to "get on with its job" and will refuse to give detailed answers to questions on the tragedy.

The Prime Minister will instead seek to regain the political initiative by hailing progress on public services such as policing, health, education and transport. Aided by Michael Barber, head of Downing Street's delivery unit, Mr Blair willattempt to chart improvements in services while admitting there is still "a lot to do". But his announcement on the privately run health clinics will seek to underline his determination to implement radical reform of the NHS to extend choice without requiring patients to pay. The expansion of the clinics represents a fourfold increase in plans for 11 centres providing 40,000 operations a year by 2005. All the extra operations will be in orthopaedics - hip and knee replacements - where NHS waiting lists are longest. Mr Blair will also invite 30 further bids for foundation hospital status.

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