THE Government has been warned the biggest overhaul in the history of the NHS which kicks in today could be an unmitigated disaster owing to the financial fragility of the healthcare system and gross disparities in the distribution of resources.
Political opponents have claimed the radical restructuring is effectively leading to the privatisation of the public health service with long-standing concerns over an increasing postcode lottery of care. And health experts warned that the NHS is not ready for the raft of changes which are being implemented under the controversial reforms.
The Health and Social Care Act, which became law after a tortuous passage through Parliament, is expected to cost the taxpayer between £1.5bn and £1.6bn to implement. The Government’s radical shift in healthcare across the country is being enforced as NHS directors battle to slash spending by £20bn.
Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham maintained that when he was Secretary of State in the previous Labour government, he was given repeated warnings not to reorganise the system at a time of immense financial pressures.
He said: “David Cameron has exposed the NHS to greater levels of risk by re-organising it at a time of huge financial pressure. He has siphoned £3bn out of the NHS front line and blown it on a back office re-organisation that no one wanted.
“Thousands of managers have received six-figure pay-offs while thousands of nurses have been given their P45s. Nothing more clearly illustrates a Government with its priorities wrong.”
Professor of health service research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Nick Black said he did not believe the health service was prepared for such a huge structural change.
He warned hospitals could “grind to a halt” as cuts to social care budgets mean doctors are unable to discharge patients who do not need to be on the wards.
And head of health at the Unite union Rachael Maskell added: “There is every indication that the NHS is not ready for the changes. The timescale was totally unrealistic.”
The responsibility for tackling problems such as obesity, smoking and alcohol abuse will transfer from the NHS to councils from today, with local authorities given ring-fenced budgets to provide services.
But Shadow Public Health Minister Diane Abbott warned there was a “postcode lottery” for the distribution of money for each local authority, with huge disparities in funding allocations between different parts of the country.
Ms Abbott said: “In principle I support the handover of public health to local authorities. But in practice, because the Government has been so preoccupied with the wider NHS re-organisation, this handover could be a car crash.”
She added: “It is wrong that this Government is unleashing this careless postcode lottery.”
But Public Health England, one of the new organisations set up under the NHS overhaul, said local government was the “natural leader” for improving services tailored to individual communities.
Health Minister Lord Howe was adamant the over-arching reforms would provide a more co-ordinated approach to healthcare, and the public would have a greater influence through patient-led inspections.
He said: “Through these changes, the health service will improve, work smarter and, importantly, build an NHS that delivers high quality, compassionate care for patients.”