Published: 01/04/2004, Volume II4, No. 5899 Page 23

It is not Whitehall's fault when a newspaper's front page announces that 'The End of Fatal Heart Attacks' will be on offer for people under 65, or at least it will be by 2013 if current improvements in mortality rates improve.

The Times even published a large colour photo of a healthy heart. It was what John Reid loyalists might call 'New Labour pink'.

I do not know about you, but such page-one treatment makes me flinch. Hostages to fortune, inflaming rising expectations etc etc. The health secretary himself, rarely a shrinking violet, was in no mood to apologise, since he used the Budget debate to sound as upbeat about progress on cancer as he had at the press conference on Winning the War on Heart Disease.He will be safely retired in 2013.

But I made a mental note to bounce such optimism off the next MP I had a private chat with to see if elected folk flinch like me. It happened to be Richard Burden, Labour's man in the Birmingham suburb of Northfield.He's been a thoughtful rebel on student top-up fees, a key theme this past week.

Is Mr Burden, a 49-year-old former union official, embarrassed?

'Not a bit of it.

Things are getting much better in the NHS in Brum.

The cardiac waiting list, high until recently, has 'virtually gone'.

There is a new cancer centre at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital to replace the old splitsite shared with Selly Oak, much better than when Mrs Burden had treatment a few years back.

There is a new women's centre and even a competently organised public finance initiative hospital (the MP is a bit PFI-sceptic) about to be built.

Good stuff. But you do not have to go far to confirm that Milburn's law of postcode health persists. For instance, Labour MP s in old mining areas complain about overwhelming industrial illnesses that go untreated. At the same time, sensible Tories like our old friend Sir George Young, the bicycling baronet, and his near-neighbour, Crispin Blunt, explain why Hampshire and Surrey get an increasingly poor share of the NHS cake - because they are prosperous.

But first I owe it to Mr Reid to report the answer he provided to last week's scepticism in this column about NHS productivity since 1997.

Speaking in the Commons, he said claims that the Major government did better simply fail to reflect non-hospital activity.He pointed to the walkin centres, the 6.3 million people dealt with by NHS Direct and the sweeping new use of drugs, including statins (which apparently account for 10 per cent of the fall in cardiac deaths).

He also emphasised that bulk buying is cutting the cost of NHS work done by the private sector.

Compared with the Milburn years they are 10 per cent below, not 40 per cent above, NHS costs.

Apart from too much Torybashing, a ministerial disease that does not respond to statins, Mr Reid's tone was upbeat. Even Tim Yeo's speech for the Opposition was relatively wholesome - it even acknowledged 'progress being made in some respects' and praised the NHS's 'dedicated and hard-working staff '.

Goodness me, there must be an election coming!

I had to read Hansard twice to confirm Mr Yeo's concession that he will not allow his patient's passport scheme (likewise the parallel pupil's passport) to be used to subsidise private health insurance.

Suffice to say, under Mr Yeo and Andrew Lansley, Tory health policy is intelligently evolving into a post-Liam Fox position, another of those 'shot foxes'ministers have been gloating about, encouraged, I might add, by Paul Burstow, the Lib Dem spokesman.

But not in Hampshire or Surrey. The way Sir George, an economist and ex-health minister, tells it, Hants got a 9 per cent cash increase this year.

Inflation is only 2 per cent, yet 7.8 per cent was consumed by 'tariff growth' - ie the cost of drugs, the higher national insurance contributions bill, the cost of reducing junior doctors hours.

Put the trust deficits on top of that (trusts are told to use growth money to pay it, he reports) and you have negative growth.

Yet healthy Hants gets 21 per cent less per capita than the English average, the MP says.

Folk get sick (and old) even in Jane Austen country!

Reigate's Mr Blunt, the ex-Army officer who blew the whistle on the Iain Duncan Smith regime, says the same for Surrey.

For good luck he adds that Mr Reid's extra 10,000 doctors translates to 1,447 fewer if we take those reduced hours into account.