Blair declares his health legacy secure


LONDON (Reuters), Apr 20 - Prime Minister Tony Blair, reviewing his legacy as he prepares to step down after a decade in power, said on Monday the course of health service reform plotted by his government was irreversible.

Charged by his critics with wasting millions of pounds on the National Health Service (NHS), Blair acknowledged mistakes had been made and that "enormous challenges" remained.

But he said policies that had brought more choice and competition would survive his departure from office and be appreciated once he was gone.

"I personally think that the concept of a less, or nonmonolithic system of healthcare, greater competition, greater patient choice -- I believe those reforms and that framework will stay in place," he told a gathering of healthcare professionals.

"I can't see any government turning their back on that.... I really don't believe you are going to get a reversal of the essential course of this," he said at an event sponsored by health think-tank The King's Fund.

Blair -- who just before his 1997 election landslide told Britons they had "24 hours to save our NHS" -- said the debate was now about improving the system's future rather than averting its collapse after 18 years of Conservative government.

But Blair faced heavy criticism from the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and NHS workers who pointed to plunging morale, a financial crisis, and gaping health inequalities.

"I've never seen so much money come into the NHS but I've never seen, in some areas, so much money wasted. That is a tragedy," said Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, at the same meeting.

There had been a brutal number of redundancies, thousands of posts had been frozen, and junior doctors were marching through London in their thousands to protest reforms, Carter said.

He and other healthcare professionals at the event recognized improvements in the NHS in the past decade and welcomed the influx of cash but said there was "anger and frustration" among employees.

Blair, however, said the reforms would be accepted and appreciated once they were entrenched -- after he was gone.

"You get them through and then I think people will make a more rational assessment of it," he said. But he added: "We have to do far more to try and take the people with us."

The Conservatives, however, published a document detailing what they said was the NHS' "circular and wasteful journey" over the past decade because of Blair's failed policies.

The Liberal Democrats accused Blair of presiding over a decade of "wasted opportunities."

"After 10 years, it's less a case of 'job done' than 'where has all the money gone?'" said Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrats' health spokesman.

By Katherine Baldwin

Last Updated: 2007-04-30 10:01:33 -0400 (Reuters Health)

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