In an interview on BBC Newsnight last night, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham admitted that his party would put the ideology of socialised care ahead of patient choice and quality of healthcare. He also slammed the Coalition government for increasing private sector involvement in the service by 1.5 percent, despite the previous Labour administration increasing private involvement by 4.4 percent during their tenure.
Burnham was grilled by Kirsty Wark, who set out by displaying a graph which illustrated that the slow increase in private sector outsourcing enacted by the Coalition government was merely a continuation of a trend started under Labour. Indeed, Burnham himself was Health Secretary from 2009 – 2010, during which time private sector involvement grew by half a percent.
Burnham, however, insisted that the 1.5 percent increase threatened to “destabalise” the health system, by delivering “fragmentation of care” when the “future demands the opposite”. Labour’s flagship policy on the NHS is integration of services, which was pushed by Burnham during the interview.
When quizzed on what the right percentage of private involvement is, Burnham said: “There isn’t a right percentage. I’m very clear that the NHS should be our preferred provider so I don’t see a role for the private sector where it can replace core public provision at the heart of every community.
But Wark challenged Burnham on what this would mean for the quality of care received by patients. “We did a study and we looked at knees and hips across a number of patients,” she told him. “The ones that were outsourced had a better quality of care, they felt, and a better outcome. So therefore that matters to people who pay into the National Health Service, to know that they have the opportunity, if necessary, to go to the best place for them.
“It’s not a question of replacing, it’s giving them that possibility of provision and that’s what you want to take away.”
Astonishingly, Burnham replied: “I’m saying to you that there’s a new reality now from the last decade. The new reality is: times are very tough and market based provision of healthcare adds cost and it adds complexity, and it brings fragmentation.”
Later in the interview Burnham insisted: “So I’m saying of course we support choice and of course we support clinicians -” To which Wark interjected: “But you don’t support choice!”
“Of course we support clinicians getting the best for their patients,” Burnham replied, “but that is within the context of a public NHS where the NHS is the preferred provider because if you carry on stripping services out, cherry-picking, you in the end destabilise the NHS”
“What [percentage] is too far?” challenged Wark, “A number please,” she pressed.
“I’m not going to give a number. I’m not putting a target saying “this is the right level”,” conceded Burnham.
The interview has been widely panned as a “car crash” for Burnham, and, by proxy, for Labour. Westminster blogger Guido Fawkes commented “The Tory outsourcing so aggressively decried by Burnham is just 1.5% more than he implemented, and he won’t even commit to reducing it.”
Others took to Twitter to share the “nightmare” interview, including the Spectator’s Sebastian Payne who tweeted a link saying “Andy Burnham’s car crash interview shows why Labour can’t be trusted with the NHS”
The columnist Ian Birrell called Burnham a hypocrite, tweeting “‘Of course we support choice’ says Andy Burnham, seeking to restrict patient choice with hypocritical U-turn on private provision.”
This morning Burham took to the pages of the Mirror to set out his plans for the NHS. They include repealing the Health and Social Care Act, which he claims has introduced a “a toxic mix of cuts, crisis and privatisation
“That’s why Labour will introduce a Bill to repeal it in our first Queen’s Speech. This will put the right values back at the heart of the NHS and call time on the market experiment.”
However, the article too has drawn criticism. Dan Hodges, the Telegraph commentator and son of Labour MP Glenda Jackson, Tweeted “Andy Burnham in the Mirror writes that Labour will “call time on the [NHS] market experiment”. On Newsnight he said the opposite.
And conservative MP Nadine Dorries commented “It seems that Andy Burnham has made the judgment that #newsnight viewers aren’t the sort of people who will read the Mirror, so he’s safe.”
Others on Twitter have been sharing a link to a Guardian article from 2001, when Burnham sat on the Health Select Committee in Parliament, asking whether Labour was going to privatise the NHS. The conclusion the paper reaches is: “Yes and no – it all depends what you mean by privatisation. Labour insists that it does not want to privatise the NHS, merely bring in private sector expertise and management skills where this can help the health service do its job.”
The paper admits that “for years in opposition was a staple form of Labour rhetoric to claim the Conservatives were “privatising” the NHS by contracting out support services – such as cleaning – to the private sector, or proposing to build hospitals under the private finance initiative.”
It also concedes that “the main difference is that Labour believe that health provision should be paid for by the NHS entirely out of central taxation, whereas the Tories believe the NHS budget should be supplemented by encouraging individuals to take out private medical insurance.”