Published: 10/01/2001, Volume 112, No. 5787 Page 21

We had an unmistakable hint that Britain's embattled healthcare system would not slip out of the headlines during the festive season when Tony Blair was challenged by Tory mum Julie Kirkbride at the last Commons question time before Christmas.

When the prime minister ducked saying whether little Leo had received his MMR jab, it guaranteed that the issue would rumble on for weeks. I thought that Number 10 had made a bad call, but Alastair Campbell insisted that the Blairs are entitled to their privacy.Where would it end? Teenage contraceptive advice, he wondered?

As so often, the Daily Mail undercut the Blairs' position by recalling that the Queen had let it be known that her children had had the polio vaccination when that controversy raged in the 1950s. Though Number 10 used the new year's eve Sunday papers to hint that Leo was jabbed (as public health minister Yvette Cooper said her babies had been), anxious parents were left perplexed.

By this week there were the inevitable media predictions of a measles epidemic. 'Yet There is no proven link between MMR and autism, ' said the practice nurse who is monitoring my blood pressure (167 over 93, since you ask) at my GP's surgery.

At a new year's day party I asked a friendly NHS consultant how business was. 'We are fed up with political interference and gimmicks. The managers are getting younger and younger. They do not know much about the NHS, and they never go near the coal face.

'I have a daily list of operations, then an emergency crops up. I get delayed, but I still have to stop at 5 o'clock because of the shift system. Too much money is still being wasted.'

There were reports that young GPs prefer to work in the NHS, but were deeply discontented and wanted shorter hours and earlier retirement. But the 75-year-old retired GP I met at a party looked a picture of health and said how lucky he is to be able to help out at his successor's practice.

NHS chief executive Nigel Crisp revealed that NHS Direct took a record 24,000-plus calls on boxing day, with vomiting, fever, coughing and diarrhoea the top four queries.

Health minister John Hutton reported that one in six A&E outpatients have alcoholrelated problems (eight in 10 at weekend peaks), and warned that violent customers may be refused treatment. Good.

In an interview with the Telegraph, his boss, Alan Milburn, called himself 'the last Blairite', committed to public-private co-operation.

He also defined the government's UK health spending target as 7.6 per cent or 7.7 per cent of GDP by 2003-04 - 'within shouting distance' of the unweighted EU average of around 7.9 per cent.

Controversial stuff, as is his call for a debate on ring-fencing health taxes. Incidentally, The Times reported that the Netherlands - whose state-regulated, not-for-profit private hospitals and insurance schemes are much admired by the Tories - is now facing many of the problems the NHS does. Over Christmas, euthanasia became legal there, though no one yet suggests that is a cost-cutting policy.

Mr Milburn also floated the idea of NHS patients paying for phones, TVs and laptops if they want them. Sunday papers got steamed up about it a week later.

By which time the minister had returned to a favourite theme - threatening to sack managers whose zero-rated hospitals do not improve.

Watching Channel 4's brilliant four-hour miniseries on Ernest Shackleton's doomed 1914 trip to the Antarctic, the only unfrozen things which caught my imagination were two very slick, incongruously juxtaposed ads during the breaks: one promoting BUPA, the other urging us all to become blood donors and featuring the grateful likes of Gary Lineker and Mo Mowlam.

Last but not least, the New Year story we all dreaded.

Everyone agreed that Baby Brown was in wonderful NHS care.Alas, not even modern medicine has all the answers. l