NHS chief executive Sir Alan Langlands has rebuked finance directors in the wake of a survey showing that the NHS is set to plunge into deficit this year.

At the annual conference of the Healthcare Financial Management Association, Sir Alan said: 'We are not paid to bleat about resources. We are not paid to undermine the service entrusted to us.

'We are here to deliver a service more convenient for patients and more in tune with the aspirations of its staff.'

HSJ understands that the speech followed a private 'dressing down' for then-HFMA chair Eric Morton and incoming chair Barry Elliott, who were summoned to see Sir Alan a week after the story broke.

The survey of 50 per cent of trusts and 60 per cent of health authorities suggested that the NHS is heading for a£200m income and expenditure deficit this year, significantly higher than the target set by the NHS Executive (see news, page 2, 11 November and news focus, pages11-13, 18 November).

At a briefing for journalists the evening before publication, HFMA officers also pointed out that NHS organisations have large historic deficits which mean that if the NHS had to be 'cashed up' tomorrow, it would be£1bn short.

The story touched a raw nerve, with journalists receiving telephone calls from health secretary Alan Milburn's special adviser, Darren Murphy. HSJ sources say he 'put pressure' on journalists to stop headlines about a£1bn deficit and attempted to 'buy off ' one reporter with another story about poorly performing doctors.

Mr Murphy told HSJ that he spoke to two reporters and 'did my job' which 'would have been to make sure that all stories reported were accurate, because that is in the interest of the NHS'. He said neither journalist had 'made any complaint' .

The HFMA and the NHS Confederation, which were also asked to comment on the story, both attempted to distance themselves from the£1bn figure.

But both organisations told HSJ this was because they felt reporters were muddling the two deficits and in danger of undermining the importance of the income and expenditure figure.

In a statement, Mr Elliott said: 'Media interest surrounding our survey has caused the legitimacy of our association to do this to be questioned. We clearly need to continue to represent the interests of our members, but need to work more closely with the Department of Health to ensure we do not inadvertently compromise public confidence in the NHS.'

See news focus, page 12; comment, page 19.