Politics: Blair promises patients will feel direct benefit of emergency funds for NHS

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The Independent Online
The bureaucratic `Berlin Wall' that blocks co-operation between hospitals and local social services is to be pulled down, helping reduce pressure on hospital beds. Anthony Bevins, political editor, reports on the pounds 300m winter lifeline for the NHS.

Tony Blair said yesterday that patients would feel a direct benefit from the emergency injection of funds to deal with the expected winter crisis in frontline care.

Touring the Central Middlesex Hospital, in west London, the Prime Minister said the Government had kept a promise by putting in the money, and it was now up to NHS managers to improve and modernise it. Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, said some of the money would be used to lubricate a new system of co-operation between health authorities and social services, locally, to look after people in the community, rather than having them "block" much-needed hospital beds.

He said the Government was determined that the money should not be used as a mere palliative to treat this winter's problems, but as a proper foundation for longer-term management.

In particular, he wanted to make a start "on removing the Berlin Wall between the NHS and local social services so that that's there as a real foundation for a much better and more targeted effort in future - so it isn't just for this winter."

Mr Dobson said at the Central Middlesex: "At the moment, there are between six and seven thousand people in hospital who shouldn't be there.

"We need to work to stop people ever coming into hospital in the first place and ensuring that they go home as soon as possible by offering them community services."

The winter bonus comes from a pounds 168m "fine" from the Ministry of Defence, which overspent its budget in the last financial year, and pounds 102m from the Department of Trade and Industry. A further pounds 30m will come from internal administrative savings in the NHS; some of it from prescription fraud.

Jean Trainor, acting chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents health authorities and trusts, said: "This cash must be directed towards providing care in a range of settings: hospital care is only one option for coping with the winter problems and general rising emergency admissions.

"Health authorities and trusts have already set up imaginative plans to work with social services and GPs to provide appropriate care. This may not always be in an acute hospital, but it will be first-class, as patients have the right to expect. These well thought-out plans should be our building blocks for the future."

But Paddy Ashdown said: "To begin to tackle the long-term effects of years of Tory underfunding and to stop hospital waiting lists rising further, at least an additional pounds 250m is now needed in the health service, on top of the pounds 300m which the Government is providing."

Michael Jack, the Tory spokesman, said higher inflation and the abolition of tax relief on private medical insurance for the over-60s had turned out to be "a costly self-inflicted wound on the NHS".