Protests held against NHS reforms

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Protests against the Government's controversial health reforms will continue to take place across England today, with union leaders warning of a "battle" over the future of the NHS.

Candlelit vigils and demonstrations were held in towns and cities yesterday, with petitions organised and street stalls mounted, and more are planned for today.

Protests were held yesterday in areas including Reading, London, Cambridge, Norwich, Sunderland, Jarrow, Manchester, Burnley, Brighton, Leeds and Portsmouth.

Unison said the so-called NHS Big Weekend showed opposition to the reforms from health workers and members of the public.

Opponents of the reforms say they could lead to a two-tier system, and that poorer people will be hit hardest.

But Health Secretary Andrew Lansley yesterday said: "Claims that we aim to privatise the NHS amount to nothing more than ludicrous scaremongering. We have made it crystal clear, time and again, that we will never, ever, privatise the NHS.

"The reality is that we're giving more power and choice to patients over how they get treated, keeping waiting times low and cutting bureaucracy so more cash gets to the front line."

Health minister Earl Howe said: "The NHS will always be available to all, free at the point of use and based on need and not the ability to pay.

"Modernising the NHS will both safeguard the future of our health service, and will deliver a world-class health service that puts patients at the heart of everything it does.

In Brighton, Councillor Gill Mitchell, Labour group leader on Brighton and Hove City Council, said yesterday: "Today is the culmination of a campaign to raise awareness of the implications of what the Government is aiming to push through this coming week in terms of moving our NHS towards a US market-style model.

"We are particularly worried about the legal implications in that these new clinical commissioning groups, as they will be called, will be, by law, required to contract and tender from the private sector.

"We think it will lead to a two-tier system.

"We believe that people who are more well-off and can afford better healthcare insurance will end up getting a better service at the expense of poorer people."

Unison claimed the Government's recent "listening exercise" over its Health and Social Care Bill had not addressed "flaws" in the legislation.

Christina McAnea, Unison's head of health, said: "The public will not forgive Lib Dem MPs for colluding with the Tories to break up and privatise the NHS. People are rightly proud of an NHS that puts patient need before private profit, and voting through this Bill will be the end of the NHS as we know it.

"The Health and Social Care Bill is a massively expensive, completely unnecessary, waste of time and public money. Hospitals are already struggling to deliver on Government demands for £20 billion in so-called efficiency savings.

"The NHS is being pushed to breaking point with longer waiting lists, job cuts and treatment rationing. Money that should be going towards patient care will be poured into reorganisations and bureaucracy.

"This is the wrong Bill at the wrong time and it's time to kick it out."

The Bill will receive its third reading in the Commons next week.