Former health secretary Alan Johnson said there was “reluctance” in the NHS to make its biggest mistakes public under Labour, while the party tabled a motion saying the problems had got worse under the coalition “since May 2010”.
The comments come as politicians sought to blame each other for the failings identified in a report by Sir Bruce Keogh, which has resulted in 11 hospitals immediately being subject to special measures and external inspections.
Prime Minister David Cameron accused Labour of a “cover-up” over the estimated thousands of unnecessary deaths, and Jeremy Hunt called it their “darkest moment”, reserving particular criticism for another former health secretary Andy Burnham.
Speaking to BBC Four’s Today programme, Mr Johnson said there was a “resistance to recording harms - when something terrible happens even to the extent of amputating the wrong limb”. He said it happened “very rarely but nevertheless there was a reluctance to make this public”.
Despite these acknowledgements he said that the criticism from the Conservative party represented a “political operation”, and said this contrasted directly with the “statesmanlike and fair” way it had presented the report into the failings of the Mid Staffordshire Trust in 2010.
And an under-fire Mr Burnham, who was health secretary under Gordon Brown from June 2009 to May 2010, defended himself in the face of cries of “resign” by saying: “This report is about your Government and failings happening now on this Government's watch.”
He told Mr Hunt that the report should not be used as political ammunition. “I hope the Government will learn a painful lesson from this,” he said: “That you shouldn't play politics with people's lives and you shouldn't play politics with the NHS, on which all people depend.”
The spokesperson for the Royal College of Midwives called for MPs from both sides of the Commons to “work together”. He said: ”The Government should be acting on its recommendations so that all patients, no matter what they are going into hospital for, can expect and receive the best possible care and outcomes.”
The Keogh review covers 2010-11 and 2011-12, and found a range of problems in what has been seen as a damning verdict on the NHS. While parties disagree over who is to blame, Conservative Stephen Dorrell, chair of the Commons Health Committee and another former health secretary, said the political spat was “completely divorced“ from patients’ needs, and instead urged a “shared agenda” of improving care.
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