The leader of Britain's doctors called yesterday for an end to the relentless political interference and Whitehall gimmicks that had turned the NHS into a "Punch and Judy show".
Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the British Medical Association, attacked MPs for "sticking their noses" into the individual cases of patients and using their bad experiences for party-political point-scoring.
Ministers were also guilty of distracting doctors from patient care because of the "unnecessary hoops, hurdles, targets and wheezes" dreamt up by Whitehall, Dr Bogle said.
In a speech to the BMA's annual meeting in Harrogate, Dr Bogle said MPs should "stop playing politics" with the NHS and agree across all parties on how it was managed. That would allow doctors and nurses to get on with their jobs and make sure the extra £40bn of funding, announced in the Budget, brought real improvements for all patients.
"The NHS has become the Punch and Judy show of British politics. But that is not the way to do it. We have seen the damage wreaked by the politicisation of the NHS," he said.
Dr Bogle said the case of Rose Addis, the 94-year-old woman allegedly left in the A&E unit at the Whittington Hospital in north London for four days, had been his most abiding image of the NHS in the past year. She was named by the Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, at Prime Minister's questions. Dr Bogle said: "Her privacy and dignity were trampled over for the sake of some party political point- scoring. No one emerged from this unsavoury and unseemly episode with any credit, not the media, not the family, and least of all the politicians whose shameless exploitation of this poor woman and her relatives for political gain was unworthy of their office."
The NHS complaints system for patients needed to be improved, Dr Bogle said, but politicians should leave patients to pursue their grievances with hospital managers. "What has stuck out over the past year is politicians increasingly sticking their noses into individual cases. Party political fighting over high-profile cases masks the enormous amount of good work going on."
Some doctors had argued for the NHS to be removed from direct political control. That was unreasonable, because so much taxpayers' money was involved. But Dr Bogle said the Government must also end its obsession with politically driven targets that sucked money from areas of genuine need, distorted clinical priorities and forced doctors to practise "conveyor belt medicine".
Ministers had started listening to doctors more. But they still had their work cut out "sifting the gimmicks and the sticking-plaster solutions from the genuine efforts to bring about long-term improvements". Dr Bogle saved his most stinging criticism for the Tories. He said they had brought the NHS to "its knees" during 18 years in office, then apparently wiped their memories clean.
He described this "collective Conservative amnesia", as "Fox syndrome", named after Dr Liam Fox, the Tory health spokesman, who had to rubbish every government move on the NHS to disguise his own dearth of ideas.
He said the Conservatives had also claimed that the extra investment in the NHS would disappear into a black hole and a health service funded solely from the public purse, that is free at the point of delivery, is no longer sustainable.
Dr Bogle said the BMA believed the NHS should be funded from general taxation and offer equal access for all, regardless of ability to pay.
Now the extra investment was on the way, the medical profession had to prove sceptics wrong and the politicians had to let doctors get on with their job of treating patients, he said.
"The provision of healthcare should be driven by the needs of patients, not by the changing political agenda," he said.