Prime minister Gordon Brown has unveiled a new health team that is widely perceived as an attempt to restore staff and public confidence in the NHS.

Heading the team is former union general secretary Alan Johnson, who left the education department to become health secretary. The appointment of a surgeon, Professor Sir Ara Darzi, as a parliamentary under-secretary underlines Mr Brown's desire to be seen to be building a government 'of all the talents'.

Former nurse Ann Keen MP has joined the team as parliamentary under-secretary, while Dawn Primarolo - a close ally of Gordon Brown - moved from her post as Treasury paymaster-general to that of public health minister. Former environment minister Ben Bradshaw is also a new health minister.

Ivan Lewis retains his brief as care services minister, which might be augmented with responsibility for mental health.

The unions have welcomed the appointment of Mr Johnson, who was general secretary of the Communication Workers Union from 1992 until his election in 1997.

Inspiring staff

NHS Confederation chief executive Dr Gill Morgan said she discussed the challenges facing the service with Mr Johnson on his first full day in office. 'One of the key issues is how we get staff to be our greatest advocates. There is a significant job to be done. Mr Johnson brings knowledge and willingness to learn to the job,' she said.

Dr Morgan said the appointment of Sir Ara meant the DoH had someone 'who understands what the direction of travel has been'. 'He will be a strong advocate for things that matter in the NHS, which is no more structural change: let's concentrate on getting the services right rather than moving the deckchairs.'

Sir Ara praised the reform drive in a statement issued after his appointment, but said: 'We can do better,' promising to speak for NHS staff 'at the heart of government'.

He said: 'My experience as a surgeon and in leading the review of the organisation of future London NHS services has given me a passion to work with government and healthcare professionals to build a better service, closer to patients and more responsive to their needs. I come from the front line and will remain on the front line.'

Sir Ara will work for the DoH four days a week, but only receive payment for three of them. He will continue to work as a surgeon one day each week.

Talking to people

The surgeon's long statement contrasted with Mr Johnson's decision to opt for a low-profile first few days. He was due to address Parliament yesterday on how the DoH hopes to 're-engage' staff and improve morale.

On Saturday Mr Johnson, Mr Brown and Sir Ara visited Kingston Hospital in London. In a film posted by Number 10 on YouTube, Mr Johnson said the visit was to 'get out and start listening to people in the NHS'. He said: 'There has been a lot of change in a short time and people wanted to explain to us what that meant [to them]'.

The unions have welcomed the new health secretary as 'someone we can do business with', but private providers have voiced concerns about how Mr Johnson, once seen as a staunch left winger, will manage the DoH's use of the private sector. Figures in the independent sector have warned against a 'big change in direction'.

King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson urged Mr Johnson to grasp the narrative of recent reforms in putting the patient at the centre of the NHS. He said reforming the NHS means re-engaging with the professions, not going backwards: 'The health service must be defined around the patient and not around those providing care.'

University College London Hospital foundation trust chief executive Robert Naylor said Mr Johnson had a good reputation. 'He comes with a very good record in education. What we need in the health service is a period of stability.'

The sector hopes Ms Primarolo will help secure better funding for public health. Dr Morgan said Ms Primarolo's understanding of Treasury perspectives could be useful.