Widdecombe urges private cash for NHS

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The Independent Online
By Sarah Schaefer

ANN WIDDECOMBE defended the Tories as the "champions" of the health service yesterday and called for a return of the matron to save the NHS.

The shadow Health Secretary was given a three-minute standing ovation after her passionate speech, which urged a shift to the right in Tory health policy in favour of the private sector. "The NHS lost when it lost matrons. I want to bring them back, because we need to restore the visible leadership and advocacy for our nurses represented by the matron - the security that she embodied," she said.

But the Government immediately accused Miss Widdecombe of wanting to scrap the NHS through privatisation.

Defending controversial Tory reforms, Miss Widdecombe said the health service needed to consider the opportunities presented by the private sector. "The question is very simple. If we accept that our health service cannot do it all, then we must either resign ourselves to ever-increasing rationing, which is now happening by stealth, or look to increase the flows of additional new cash into the NHS through common-sense co-operation with the private sector.

"Frank Dobson does not seem to realise that he is making rationing decisions every day. You can't get operations for varicose veins, lipomas or sebaceous cysts any more in our NHS on a national basis. And that's to say nothing of Viagra. What's that if not rationing?"

She said the Government's pledge to cut waiting lists had run over-budget to nearly pounds 400m from the original estimates of pounds 100m and would be years late in arrival.

Claiming the Government had "deceived people" over waiting lists, Miss Widdecombe said the British Medical Association had evidence consultants were being paid "large sums of money to perform simple operations" to bring lists down, while more difficult ones were postponed. She claimed doctors were discouraged from referring patients to out-patient clinics, and opposed abolishing fund-holding in favour of co-operatives.

The shadow Health Secretary did not give details of how the private sector could be expanded but she made clear that her proposals would not just address private insurance.

"I want to move the guilt away from people who choose to take out private insurance but this is certainly not about patients paying for what they used to get free. It is about the massive investment in pharmaceuticals, research and clinical technology."

Miss Widdecombe renewed her commitment to increasing NHS funding with every year. She also took a tough line on nurses' pay, stressing the importance of the Independent Review Body. "I will not pluck irresponsible figures out of the air and back any figure, no matter how astronomic. I shall watch the outcome of [the Review Body] deliberations with interest," she said.

Alan Milburn, the Health minister, said Miss Widdecombe had finally "turned her back" on the health service. "Make no mistake. This is concrete proof, straight from the horse's mouth, that if the Tories ever were elected, the NHS would be privatised," he said.

Bob Abberley, health spokesman for Unison, which represents half of Britain's nurses, said: "It is time the Tories moved into the real world. There is even less support for privatising the NHS than there is for the Tory Party.

"The case for NHS health workers' pay is overwhelming, but nurses will not take seriously support for a Tory spokeswoman whose government kept them in poverty pay."