COMMENT - PUBLIC HEALTH

Published: 01/12/2005 Volume 115 No. 5984 Page 3

Did public health minister Caroline Flint know her chief medical officer was planning to say he had considered resigning in protest at the government's partial smoking ban? Those in the room when they both appeared before the health select committee last week say she seemed genuinely taken aback when told about Sir Liam Donaldson's earlier comments (news, page 9).

On the face of it, Sir Liam's declaration of discontent is not particularly surprising. He was noticeable by his absence from the launch of the public health white paper last year and at the time was tight-lipped on the subject in both public and private.

He has clearly been biding his time and feels able to be much more open now.

Someone of Sir Liam's political experience would not be so forthright in that setting if he were not absolutely confident that there is high-level support for his view. If he had wanted to go down fighting, he would have done so already. The situation is quite the contrary: he thinks he can win.

A decision was carefully taken to capture headlines by saying that the policy 'damages the public health' - hence Sir Liam's 'unprecedented' position of public opposition. Although the extent of genuine public support for a total ban is still far from clear, Sir Liam's boldness reflects the fact that momentum in the Commons at least is growing.

Following their Cabinet defeat, supporters of a total ban are marshalling their forces again. The health select committee's position is not hard to guess.

Is a free vote a possibility for Labour MPs, so soon after the government's humiliation over terror legislation? That seemed unlikely a few weeks ago - less so now.

Full-scale rebellion looks unlikely during the Health Bill's second reading this week. It seems that supporters of a total ban are content to build support until they can act decisively later in the parliamentary process. l