Health secretary Alan Johnson has outlined plans to ramp up the pace of reform in the face of a struggle to meet health inequalities targets.

Mr Johnson revealed the Department of Health will scale up the work of the national support team for health inequalities and create new teams for infant mortality and alcohol, as he unveiled a progress report, Health inequalities - progress and next steps.

His announcement comes less than 18 months before a 2010 deadline to reduce inequalities in health outcomes by 10 per cent as measured by infant mortality and life expectancy at birth.

The report admits this target, set as a national public service agreement in 2001, "remains challenging" as people's health in England is improving across the board.

Figures released by the DH last month reveal gaps have widened on infant mortality and life expectancy since the baselines for the target - based on 1997-99 and 1995-97 data respectively - were set.

At an event hosted by the Institute for Public Policy Research, Mr Johnson said further action was needed on "wider determinants of health inequality", such as education and poverty. Good health must be promoted further, via extra funds for smoking cessation, and tackling alcohol and obesity problems.

Mr Johnson also highlighted proposals to boost primary care access and vowed the government's polyclinic and GP-led health centre initiatives would be successful.

He said: "The ludicrous misrepresentation of this policy by the British Medical Association and the Conservative party is a faint echo of their infamous double act 60 years ago when they opposed the creation of the NHS itself.

"Those who oppose longer opening hours and additional investment in primary care reveal with alarming clarity their willingness to defend the narrow vested interests of the more reactionary elements of the profession, at the expense of better services [particularly] for patients living in poorer areas."

Many of the measures in the plan rely on£34m allocated in last year's comprehensive spending review.

King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson called for a "co-ordinated effort" of national and local government, NHS, employers and others working together to create healthier environments.

Moves on inequalities

  • Eleven primary care trusts to receive funding to explore better mental health services, in particular for children and adolescents

  • New alcohol support team and youth alcohol action plan to target underage binge drinkers

  • Improved health inequalities intervention modelling tool

  • Programmes to support leadership development for reducing health inequalities

  • Local investment in third sector

  • Measures to improve family support, promote nurse-led family partnerships and prevent long-term sickness in working adults