Health secretary Alan Johnson has publicly dismissed the chief medical officer's concerns about extended licensing hours - a view that now appears to put him at odds with his own prime minister.

At a fringe meeting on Monday, Mr Johnson spoke out against concerns expressed by Sir Liam Donaldson over the 2005 relaxation of licensing laws.

Yet, the same day, Gordon Brown announced a review of 24-hour licensing - suggesting he could overturn it in the light of 'unacceptable' binge drinking.

Mr Johnson said he had asked NHS staff about the impact of the change to licensing law. He said: 'The ambulance services in particular say actually it has made it much more easy to deal with.

'So I don't agree with the chief medical officer who says it has led to bigger problems. I don't think it has, the evidence isn't there for that.'

He acknowledged alcohol was an area of public health that 'needs to be addressed'. Yet, when questioned by a member of the audience, Mr Johnson declined to reveal more details - and emphasised that alcohol in moderation was not damaging to people's health.

Hailing the NHS as a 'precious jewel' Mr Johnson also told delegates at the 'Access all areas: how can we tackle health inequalities?' debate that smoking cessation clinics in deprived areas had to double.

And he said fluoridation of water is back on the agenda for the government.

He said he had been a supporter of the process - where fluoride compounds are added to the water supply to combat tooth decay - for more than 30 years. At present about 10 per cent of people in the UK drink fluoridated water.

He said: 'I am convinced of this and I spoke to our leading expert on this last week about how we can get the drive moving again on fluoridation.'

The Department of Health will publish a strategy next year on 'priority' areas of access and prevention (for more background, click here).

To read HSJ's health hotel coverage, click here