Health secretary Andy Burnham has said his focus is on protecting the frontline, but could not promise health services would be ringfenced from expected spending cuts.

Mr Burnham said he was “not going to do Alistair Darling’s job” when questioned over health service spending.

He said the era of “catch-up funding” to bring the NHS up to the European average was over, but his main focus was on “the front line, to protect primary care trusts”.

“I’m pretty clear in saying I will protect the front line of the health service and I don’t want to see us slipping backwards having made so much progress,” he said.

In a BBC interview, Mr Burnham refused to be drawn on questions over whether the health service will be protected from any cuts.

He said: “It’s not a promise I can make.” Mr Burnham added such decisions would be made by the chancellor and the prime minister, and that they would look at “all the factors in the economy”.