Published: 20/06/2002, Volume II2, No.5810 Page 22 23

A considerable amount of column inches were devoted this week to the consultants' contracts story.

'Golden handcuffs'was the tenor of the Telegraph headline, while 'U-turn' was how The Guardian and Independent chose to describe it.

The Sun was as succinct as ever: 'Top docs win NHS pay deal.'Can't be bothered to read the rest of the cuttings? Well, The Sun Says it All: 'Newly appointed specialist doctors may have to put NHS patients first in future - in return for more cash.'

But the story, as always, was more complex than that. It was the good old Thudererer - preferred reading of many a bow-tied consultant - that devoted an editorial to it the very day after the announcement, spelling out the true significance of the issue.

Casting its mind back to the founding of the NHS, the editorial refers to Aneurin Bevan's need to 'stuff ' the consultants' mouths with gold in order to bring them within the brave new world of the NHS.

So, now, health secretary Alan Milburn is doing just the same, it suggests.Not quite gold perhaps, but£310m is, as The Times rightly says, a high price to pay for keeping the NHS going that bit longer. And, of course, for ensuring a Labour victory at the next election.

As The Times editorial rightly states, 'the functions of consultants are critical to the credibility of the NHS reform process'.

The Times is optimistic that the new contract may, at last, allow managers to organise more surgery outside conventional office hours, and it even urges consultants to accept the contract when they are balloted on it later this year.

As everyone in the NHS knows, without the consultants on board, Labour's reforms have no chance of success. Even the Torygraph lambasted shadow health secretary Liam Fox for describing Milburn's deal as a 'complete and humiliating climbdown'.

Such subtleties elude the Daily Mirror , though, where Paul Routledge '(He's OFFmessage)'had the following wise words for Mr Milburn, who he described as having 'run up the white flag'.

'Next time you talk tough, pretty boy Milburn, you will hear a loud raspberry from this direction.'