Published: 03/10/2002 Volume II2, No.5825 Page 18 19

Health service managers like nothing better than having a letter of the alphabet on which to pin their ideas - for example, the three Rs of modernisation: renewal, redesign and respect.

Taking a leaf from their books, the media have been in wild pursuit of the three Fs: funding, financial management and future of the NHS.

First off the mark was a report looking at likely future demands on the NHS by the pharmaceutical industry-funded - albeit independent - think tank the Office of Health Economics. It expressed concern that the extra funds being pumped into the NHS might not have the desired result as spending was growing faster than capacity, indicating that costs were rising above inflation and that at least some of the money was being used to topup salaries.

Responses were prickly.

A Department of Health spokesperson dismissed the report as 'partial and crude' in The Guardian , while The Independent quoted 'NHS managers' as saying that most of the money has been spent on meeting specific targets such as cutting waiting lists which will improve the patient experience without expanding services.

Gearing up for what for the Financial Times dubbed 'the big clash'at the Labour party conference in Blackpool, the Treasury made clear its position on the three Fs as it disclosed the extent to which private sector money is being used to underpin the public sector.

In The Times , chancellor Gordon Brown firmly dug in his heels, declaring that 'the private finance initiative alone can deliver our election promises'.

The Daily Mail gleefully dubbed him 'Ironfist', delivering a double whammy by challenging both the plans of health secretary Alan Milburn to give financial freedom to foundation hospitals and slapping down the 'union barons' for opposing the use of PFI hospitals.

Elsewhere, a fourth F - shadow health spokesman Dr Liam Fox - had other plans entirely for the NHS's future as he outlined the Conservative vision of competition for patients as the only way to improve services, claiming that much NHS money is squandered through waste and fraud.

You do not need a crystal ball to agree with The Sun 's analysis that the government 'is certain to accuse the Tories of plotting the end of the NHS'.