Blair prepares to play the health card

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Voters have just 14 days left to save the National Health Service, John Prescott warned last night.

Labour's deputy leader told a rally in Loughborough: "There are just 14 days left to polling day. That's just 14 days left to save the health service. Fourteen days to save it from internal markets, red tape and piece-by-piece privatisation until finally the NHS is destroyed and you won't get treated unless you can pay for it."

The speech marked the opening of a two-day campaign on health, an issue on which Labour claims the biggest polling lead for competence. The party is also hoping to contrast its own positive message on health with Tory disunity and disarray over Europe.

While Labour can no longer boast that it will spend more than the Tories on the NHS, it will focus on its plans for greater efficiency in spending the money and on proposals to abolish the internal market and change the system for fundholding GPs.

Last night, as a prelude to the campaign, three Labour frontbenchers - Mr Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Chris Smith - spoke at Loughborough, a key target seat which has been deserted by Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, for a safer constituency.

Mrs Beckett cited the example of what happened in the United States to Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman but became paralysed as a result of a riding accident and who has been expressing concern over whether he can afford his health bills.

Labour's trade and industry spokeswoman said he was "a man worth more than you or me, a man stricken down in the prime of life, a man who wonders openly what happens when the money runs out." She argued that the NHS was one issue where there was "clear blue water" between Labour and the Tories. "There is no ideal more great, no design more grand, no new direction needed more desperately than in Britain's need for a health service fit for a new millennium," she said.

While trying to eschew any new promises about the NHS, Mrs Beckett raised some hostages to fortune by saying that under the Tories people had to wait 12 hours on a trolley for treatment and had their operations cancelled three times because there were not enough staff to carry them out.

Mr Prescott drew a picture of a semi-privatised health service, saying: "When people come in the door, they are asked: do you have private insurance? Which is your GP? If you have insurance or you are registered with the right GP fundholder, you get priority.If you don't, you go to the back of the queue."

Mr Smith, the party's health spokesman, told the rally: "The NHS will be here if the Tories win a fifth term." But he warned: "It will be a different NHS - not a National Health Service. It will be no health service - certainly as we have known and grown up with it."