Published: 01/07/2004, Volume II3, No. 5912 Page 7

Health secretary John Reid used his keynote speech to announce an expansion of the choice agenda and to give heartfelt thanks to NHS staff for four years of delivery and improvement.

He said that by December 2008 patients would be able to choose to be referred to any treatment facility that could equal the NHS on standards and costs, including the private sector.

In a warm and rousing speech in which he made repeated attacks on Conservative policy proposals, Mr Reid paid tribute to the achievements of the NHS since 1997.

He told the conference: 'I am sick and tired of hearing the staff of the NHS maligned and portrayed as unproductive bureaucrats... they have saved more lives and done more good than any politician ever did.'

After listing successes, including the hospital building programme and a range of targets across primary and acute care, he warned delegates: 'Instead of slowing the pace of reform and investment, I am now pressing the foot on the accelerator. I know it can be unnerving because I know that you are in the driving seat.'

Mr Reid made his speech hours after announcing the NHS fiveyear plan in the Commons.

He told the confederation that targets in the NHS improvement plan - centred on public health, chronic-disease management and a total maximum waiting time from referral to first treatment - represented 'a radical set of new proposals' to make NHS care not only fair but increasingly personal. The new targets were revealed by HSJ exclusively on 10 June (news, pages 3-5).

Drawing attention to the differences between Labour's proposals and the policies outlined this week by the Conservatives, the health secretary outlined the government's new proposals to expand choice still further.

He said that further to a current target to give patients a choice of four or five hospitals by December 2005, by December 2008 patients would be given the right to choose to be referred to any treatment facility - including the private sector - that could equal the NHS on standards and costs.

He compared this with the Conservatives' newly rebranded 'right to choose' policy, which offers patients 50 per cent of the costs of their care if they choose to 'go pr ivate'.

Mr Reid said the main driving factor behind increased use of the private sector was a lack of capacity and long waiting lists in the NHS. The government's determination to increase capacity and cut waits would make the NHS an increasingly attractive option.

Promising steps towards a 'practical decentralisation' of power, he said it would be 'as stupid to try to drive everything from the centre than to pretend that overnight you could get rid of every NHS target'.

Mr Reid said that as current targets were met they would be replaced by fewer, suggesting there would be fewer than one target in the future for every 10 now.

Finally, he formally announced that the NHS Confederation's employers' organisation is to take an expanded role from October with responsibility for employment negotiations.