Patricia Hewitt has vowed to press ahead with controversial NHS reforms despite fears that services across the UK are under threat.
Ms Hewitt said the reforms were the only way to protect the NHS but added that its core values were ‘non-negotiable’ and would not change.
At a conference in London today, Ms Hewitt said: ‘These are difficult times for staff in the NHS. There’s a sense that many in the service no longer know where it’s going.
‘I believe the changes and the reforms we’re making are not just consistent with the founding values of the NHS, they are the only way to safeguard those values for the future.’
A&E closure fears
Her speech comes amid criticism that accident and emergency (A&E) units are being axed at hospitals in order to save money.
The government believes patient care will be improved if services such as A&E and maternity are concentrated in larger specialist units but critics say this will lead to the closure of district general hospitals.
Ms Hewitt said: ‘The structures that were right in the 1960s – when the model for the district general hospital was defined – aren’t right today.’
She added: ‘District general hospitals are changing, not because of financial problems but in response to medical possibilities.’
Ms Hewitt said that if A&E was taken as one example, it was no longer safe or effective to carry out all types of specialist emergency medicine in every single hospital.
She added that A&E staff could now provide care in the home or on the side of the street if that was where an accident had taken place.
But Which? Principal Policy Adviser Frances Blunden said the Health Secretary’s comments would only continue to fuel public concerns that many existing A&E departments will close.
She added: ‘Whilst we can’t argue with the rationale behind creating high-tech regional trauma centres, there is a real concern about where most people’s urgent care needs will be met in this new structure.
‘Closing A&Es will result in many people simply not knowing where to go for treatment. Indeed, Which? research shows that A&E is the default option for many people in the UK needing out-of-hours care.’
She added that closing A&E departments would result in more people travelling further, with potentially serious consequences.
Chairman James Johnson said:’I am disappointed to hear that the Health Secretary thinks the NHS is stuck in the 1940s. The health service is an evolving organisation and under this government in particular, has undergone relentless change. Doctors and other health professionals are continually innovating and improving the services they offer patients and deserve credit for doing so.’