Health secretary Andy Burnham has promised to do “everything he can” to protect primary care budgets from public sector spending cuts.

Andy Burnham said improving NHS backroom functions, as well as better infection control and reducing patient stays, are likely to be the focus for government proposals to cut spending in health.

It’s right to say you are going to have a bigger productivity and efficiency challenge than you’ve had before, but we’re going to give you time to see how to unlock those savings

Andy Burnham

Earlier this month, children’s secretary Ed Balls set out where £2bn in cuts could be made to education spending – including the loss of 3,000 senior teaching staff.

But health secretary Andy Burnham said this week that his proposals on how to cut spending “would come later in the year”.

Speaking this week at a Labour Party conference fringe event, he said: “We’ve been in a difficult year for finances. The full picture is not yet clear – that will become clear when the chancellor does his pre-Budget report [in November]. Then judgements can be made on what the spending priorities might be.”

However, Mr Burnham did identify some areas where potential savings were being looked at. For example, he said “a lot of money could be taken out” if the poorest performing trusts on infection rates and length of patient stay could be brought up to the standard of the best.

He added: “I am looking at backroom stuff, shared services – do we purchase as well as we might, have we got PCTs and SHAs really using back office functions. These are the things, some of it very boring, very technical – but we want to give people a clear sense of how this £15 to 20bn could be unlocked from the system.

“From my point of view I will do everything I can to protect primary care budgets, to protect the front line. And then if savings need to be made, we make them from other quarters,” he said. “Front line first, PCT budgets first – that’s what we should protect first.”

Mr Burnham also reiterated calls, made in a recent speech at the King’s Fund, for SHAs and trusts to hold back on conducting “mini spending reviews” without all the facts.

But deputy chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee Dr Richard Vautrey said this was already happening in some places.

“The problem is on the ground PCTs are already planning sort of the Doomsday scenarios – presenting GPs with figures of how much they will have to cut from their budgets just to stand still,” he said.

But Mr Burnham said the planned multi-year tariff would show people the “scale of the productivity and efficiency challenge going forward and give them time to plan, think about how to allot the resources”.

“It’s right to say you are going to have a bigger productivity and efficiency challenge than you’ve had before, but we’re going to give you time to see how to unlock those savings. That’s a realistic message but it’s not all doom and gloom,” he said. “I’m not pessimistic at all about the next year in the NHS.”