Last week was a NICE week and a Nice week, whereas this week will mainly be a Nice week. All the evidence is that it will not be such a nice one on the NHS front, let alone the European one. But health secretary Alan Milburn has chosen to place himself in the front line regardless. Nice one, Alan. Puzzled? Of course you're not. The secretary of state used his address to the NICE conference in Harrogate (where else? ) to praise the two-year debut of the NHS's drug evaluation panel. But he coupled it with an interesting attempt to wrap the service in the union flag - 'the NHS helps shape and cement our national identity'.

He mocked so-called patriotic critics - he means the Tories and the Euro-sceptic press - 'who attack all things European, while at the same time covertly arguing for the backdoor importation of European-style insurance systems and the abandonment of British healthcare'.

I was rung in advance about this and tipped off, just in case I failed to spot it - also because Mr Milburn explicitly did what no on-message New Labour minister would have done a year ago. He quoted a survey asking people what institutions show Britain in a favourable light.

'Ninety-one per cent answered the NHS. By way of comparison the Commons scored 70 per cent and the BBC scored just 68 per cent. No-one mentioned the Daily Mail.' Ouch!

Rule 1 of New Labour media management used to be never attack The Sun or the Daily Mail - they're too important to enrage. But as the Nice summit looms and media Euro-distortion grows about the 'European army' (it ain't) and other policies, the Labour worm has finally turned and bitten back (do worms bite? ).

Ministers now attack The Sun on Europe. Blair's man, Alastair Campbell, now takes repeated pokes at the Daily Mail's 'third world NHS' campaign. A more introspective paper might wonder why, if that were literally true, Damilola Taylor had to come to Britain - and be murdered here - if his sister's epilepsy could be treated at home.

Anyway, as Tony Blair headed for his summit in gangster-infested Nice, Minister Milburn was softening up the enemy on his behalf.

Interestingly enough, it might just be working.

Pre-summit coverage has been less hysterical than usual, so we may yet be reading soon about a merely 'second world NHS', though this week's Blair-Milburn initiative to prepare public opinion for a bad winter on the wards suggests it won't be too soon.

What it also suggests is a pre-emptive move, a deliberate decision to take the sting out of a potential crisis before it happens, then hope it does not prove as bad as feared - thus making a half-crisis look like a triumph. City slickers play this trick with disappointing annual results all the time. When ICI or BP's profits are halved instead of quartered (as predicted) everyone cheers.

But what of the NICE speech? I thought it above average. Mr Milburn quoted the Financial Times' Nick Timmins as saying that NICE's decisions may have saved the NHS£70m on drugs, but had also cost it£205m in extra treatment. He also thanked staff and said sorry for not doing more sooner on the cash front. 'Sorry' and 'thank you' will feature strongly in Labour's election campaign.

To prove his point, as you have probably read, Mr Milburn asked NICE to look at fertility treatments, a costly and emotive issue which - by happy coincidence - may help appease the Daily Mail's ruffled feathers. 'Huge and unacceptable variations in access', was how he put it.

True, as every health manager knows.

As a reality check, I rang an MP-GP, in this instance Labour's Howard Stoate, who would lose marginal Dartford on a swing of less than 4 per cent. It was Sunday night, and Dr Stoate was in bed early after a busy weekend. GPs are glad 'to have a piece of paper to wave at patients and say, 'Yes, you can have this drug', or 'No, you can't', ' he said.

Doctors are also pleased about the IVF reference, 'a classic nightmare' for GPs facing distraught patients. But they are also frustrated.

Why? Because there is such a backlog of drug options for Mike Rawlins' team to examine - antibiotic choices, for instance. No wonder, I thought, that the pharmaceutical industry called in Harrogate for the NHS to try out new products before they get the NICE inspection.

Have a NICE/Nice/nice day.