Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that the debate over the use of private providers in the NHS is “utterly toxic”, and that poor care is still unacceptable regardless of how it is provided.
Mr Hunt added that the public assumed that a Labour Party politician would back public providers and the Conservatives would support private providers for reasons of ideology rather than patient care.
Speaking to healthcare leaders from the UK and around the world at a global health conference this week, the cabinet minister emphasised his view of the importance of “pragmatism and neutrality” in deciding which organisations are best placed to provide care.
Asked at the conference, organised by consultants KPMG, whether the private sector should be more involved in care provision, Mr Hunt said: “I think the answer to that question is absolutely and utterly toxic, if it is decided by party politicians.
“If a Labour Party politician says he or she wants to favour public provision over private provision, the public will suspect that is being done for ideological reasons, not for reasons that put patients first.
“If a Conservative politician decides to favour the private sector, the public will also think that that is for primarily ideological reasons, not for reasons of patient care.”
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He added: “We have GP led commissioning groups… that are making the right decisions for patients at a local level and we should embrace whatever is best for those patients as decided by those GPs.
“I think we have to recognise that there is outstanding good practice in the private sector,” he added, citing the example of the privately run Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire.
He said: “We need to recognise that poor care is poor care, whether it is in the public or private sector.”
At the same gathering, former NHS England chief executive Sir David Nicholson said that the NHS had to get over its “obsession” with whether healthcare was provided by the public or private sector.
Sir David said: “Debating the means of production of healthcare seems like a very 20th century debate.”
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham last week accused the government of using the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust scandal to soften up the health service for privatisation.
Mr Burnham made his comments during a speech to NHS staff and trade union representatives following his appearance at the NHS Confederation Conference in Liverpool.
He said: “The Francis report was terrible, but it was a local failure and [the government] are trying to say it’s happening everywhere. They are softening [the NHS] up for privatisation.”
Commenting on Labour’s time in office, Mr Burnham told staff “we did let the market in too far”, but promised them “I will make the NHS the preferred provider”.