Raising the quality of services is the best way to improve productivity as NHS spending is cut, and this should not be a time of “gloom”, the new health secretary has told HSJ.

In his first full interview since he took over from Alan Johnson last Friday, Andy Burnham said quality must not be sidelined just because public finances were tight.

“Ara Darzi’s vision around quality is the best productivity and efficiency driver as well,” he said.

Mr Burnham, who was chief secretary to the Treasury from June 2007 to January 2008, said prioritising the prevention of ill health and using “ingenuity and imagination around procurement” were also essential.

He said his previous experience as a minister at the Department of Health would be useful.

“Having been here when we had all the problems with deficits, I was knee deep in the turnaround process.

“There were real strengths [that] came from that, that we now need to make sure are properly embedded,” he said. “Part of this is grip - and keeping this grip.”

He said NHS chief executive David Nicholson, who last week told HSJ“all bets were off” in the face of the financial challenges ahead, was “absolutely right to put this at the forefront of people’s minds”.

But the formerly Blairite minister made a tacit admission that NHS reforms could falter in straitened financial circumstances and promised to fight the NHS’s corner to secure the funding required.

“My job will be to argue for sufficient resources to make sure we do not jeopardise the huge gains we made,” he said.

He said he would not follow his predecessor in largely keeping the NHS out of headlines.

“I do not enter this job thinking a period of quiet or silence would be good,” he said. “This must not feel and should not feel like a moment of gloom because actually it should be quite the opposite. We have a clear agenda and it should be a moment of confidence for the NHS.”

Asked whether he would be prepared to look at pay or pensions as areas that could contribute to the £15bn-20bn efficiency savings from 2011-14 called for by Mr Nicholson, he said he wanted to maintain the vastly improved relationship with the trade unions.

“Alan Johnson successfully cemented the idea there’s not an us and them. I will want to preserve that at all costs,” he said.

The former culture secretary praised primary care trusts for thinking “more creatively” over the last couple of years, and stressed their role to “change permanently levels of physical activity in this country”.

Mike O’Brien and Gillian Merron have joined Lord Darzi, Phil Hope and Ann Keen as health ministers (see box). Mr Burnham said his colleagues were all “like-minded people” who wanted to work “in a collaborative and collegiate way”.

Mr Burnham will address the NHS Confederation conference today. Confederation chief executive Steve Barnett said Mr Burnham’s experience at the Treasury and DH gave him “absolutely the right credentials”.

“I agree with him this is not a time for doom and gloom, it is a time for realism. I believe that local leadership and local managers, working in partnership with directors of trade unions and others, have definitely got it within them to deal with the crisis, but what’s important is that we should start now.”

King’s Fund chief executive Niall Dickson said: “There is a difference between dealing with the issue of deficits in an era of plenty and a sustained period when the NHS will have a lot less money… Just to focus on prevention or on quality won’t do it. There need to be those things and a lot more, including designing pathways and changing the way that services are delivered.”

New ministers

Mike O’Brien

  • Solicitor and law lecturer before defeating Tory Francis Maude in his Warwickshire North seat in 1992
  • Home affairs spokesman under Tony Blair and junior Home Office minister in 1997
  • Has been a minster at the Foreign Office, Department of Trade and Industry and Department for Work and Pensions
  • Solicitor general between 2005 and 2007 and since October minister at the Department for Energy and Climate Change

Gillian Merron

  • Graduated in management sciences at Lancaster University
  • Worked as a public sector union official for 10 years, for the National Union of Public Employees then Unison
  • Entered Parliament in 1997 as MP for Lincoln and held Ministry of Defence ministerial posts between 1998 and 2001.
  • Has since held the Lord Commissioner of the Treasury post, worked in the whips’ office and held junior minister roles in the departments for transport and international development, and most recently the Foreign Office