Hewitt denies dismantling the NHS

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Health service unions have attacked the Government's announcement that the NHS is to buy an extra 1.7 million operations from the private sector over the next five years at a cost of £3bn.

Health service unions have attacked the Government's announcement that the NHS is to buy an extra 1.7 million operations from the private sector over the next five years at a cost of £3bn.

Patricia Hewitt, in her first major speech as Health Secretary, denied that she was dismantling the NHS. "We are delivering more operations faster to patients who desperately need them," she said.

Karen Jennings, Unison's head of health, said: "The private sector will cherry-pick the easiest operations, leaving the NHS to carry out all the more expensive, difficult ones."

The investment will almost triple the amount of work being contracted out to private hospitals from the current 215,000 operations a year to 615,000 operations a year, amounting to 11 per cent of all NHS operations.

The increase is in line with plans announced by the former health secretary John Reid that the private sector would eventually take over up to 15 per cent of NHS operations.

The Government is desperate to increase capacity in the NHS in order to meet its target to cut the total wait from GP referral to operation to 18 weeks by 2008.

It is on course to reduce in-patient waiting times to a maximum of six months by the end of this year, but the 18-week target is seen as much tougher.

Ms Hewitt, a Blairite, made plain her enthusiasm for the market reforms pioneered by Mr Reid and his predecessor Alan Milburn in a speech to a conference of NHS managers in Birmingham.

The extra operations to be provided by the private sector will be concentrated in areas with the longest waiting lists: orthopaedics, ear nose and throat, general surgery and urology.

Sir Nigel Crisp, NHS chief executive, said the target for all patients needing heart surgery to be treated within three months had been met last March, three years ahead of schedule.

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