The national plan for the NHS will examine but 'firmly reject' a move towards private medical insurance, health secretary Alan Milburn announced during an attack on Conservative health policy.

In a speech at Labour's media centre at Millbank, Mr Milburn said the choice between Labour's plans to modernise the NHS and the Conservatives' plans to expand private healthcare were now the 'key dividing line on health'.

But shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox hit back at the NHS Confederation's conference, saying the Conservatives would 'match' Labour's spending plans but 'seek ways of expanding private provision on top of this'.

Analysts Laing and Buisson said this week that the market for private medical insurance has been 'flat' since 1990 and the number of people with cover fell 4.5 per cent to 6.4 million at the end of last year, mainly due to high premium increases.

Private Medical Insurance - UK Market Sector Report 2000. Laing and Buisson, 0207833 9123.£300.