Health Secretary Andy Burnham promises NHS targets massacre

The target culture that has driven NHS reforms over the past dozen years will be dismantled in a “deep clean” that removes alienating bureaucracy, the Health Secretary pronounced.

Giving his first speech since taking office, Andy Burnham said that while the challenges faced by the NHS were substantial, the opportunities to streamline reforms and focus on the prevention of ill health could bring savings.

He added that he would reward the best primary care trusts with even greater control over how they operated, and a “lighter touch performance management”.

Mr Burnham, who was speaking at the NHS Confederation’s annual conference, said he could not make pledges on future spending or budget cuts, but insisted that he would not cut back on agreed funding programmes.

His statement followed revelations in The Times of Government advisers withholding money from a £750 million programme set aside for the building and refurbishment of community hospitals.

A letter sent between health chiefs highlights a Department of Health strategy to divert health authorities away from the programme – which still has £500m to spend – because “the Treasury is unlikely to agree further releases of funding”.

Mr Burnham again sought to allay fears of substantial cuts after a report from the NHS Confederation warned of a multibillion-pound budget shortfall over the next decade. The report, published yesterday, prompted angry exchanges in the Commons as Gordon Brown accused the Tories of planning deep cuts in public services to allow for real-terms increases in health spending.

Mr Burnham refused to say if a Labour Government would allow real-terms growth, saying that he “could not pre-empt Treasury decisions”. But he added that the NHS would improve from stripping away unhelpful targets and concentrating on preventive public health measures.

“I want to deep clean the target regime,” he said.

“Targets have their time and place but where they have served their purpose and they are subsidiary to wider objectives, they should now be removed. And believe me I will do that.”

Mr Burnham said that core targets – such as the 4-hour waiting time target in A&E; and the 18-week target from GP referral to treatment – would remain in place as “minimum standards”, but others which had served their purpose and now “alienated people” would be up for review. He said that targets surrounding inpatient waiting times – which include a 13-week target from decision to operate to hospital admission – might be expected to be removed.

“I think there’s scope really now to take away stuff that does not need to be there any more,” he said.

The Health Secretary said that “prevention” needed to be added to the bywords of “quality, innovation and productivity”, adding that smoking, drinking and obesity related admissions to hospital accounted for £10 billion of NHS costs per annum.

“We have, at times, possibly been too timid on public health. Health trusts should not feel they have to wait for permission to invest in prevention. If we believe in investing in people’s health we should go on and do it.

“The Department of Health is in a position of great health,” he added. “There are challenges ahead, as always, but let’s not talk ourselves into a crisis. This is a moment of opportunity not threat.”


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