When prime minister Tony Blair sends a specially recorded video urging people to join your cause and health secretary Frank Dobson rolls up in person to underline the plea, you know you have high-level backing.

The launch last week of the New Health Network - not so much a think tank as a 'do tank' and one in which NHS managers play a prominent part, according to the publicity - was just such an event.

Chaired by Bromley health authority chief executive Claire Perry, and with an office staffed by consultants KPMG, the network aims to make the case for the modernisation of the NHS.

As might be expected with such high-level backing, its objectives are closely tied to the government's New NHS reforms, and its politically affiliated backers have solid New Labour credentials.

Dreamed up by former NHS Confederation chief executive and Labour peer Lord Hunt, the network has been able to call on the services of Blairite think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Downing Street's shadowy health policy adviser, Robert Hill, has also been involved, and sat at Mr Dobson's right hand for the launch. To the health secretary's left was his own adviser, Simon Stevens. One New Labour insider says the prime minister 'is very much behind this'.

The organisation also has serious business backing, with Dr Chai Patel, who made his fortune in the private nursing home industry, putting up cash and serving on the network's board.

But Ms Perry denies the network is a pro-government front organisation. 'My passion isn't politics, it is the health service,' she says. Speaking at the launch, she said the NHS now had 'more funding than ever before' and considerable agreement on the right way forward. 'I see little dissent anywhere about the policy direction, and that is certainly very different from the last set of reforms that came in in 1990. Yet the champions for change are not speaking up and staff feel burdened.'

The New Health Network, she said, wanted to 'create the space to champion change and modernisation, and to make it happen from within the NHS and its partner organisations'.

It aims to recruit 500 active members in six months - with core funding to set up an infrastructure coming from corporate backers (see box). Its organisers claim to be nearly half way to the target membership figure already.

In his video message, Mr Blair said: 'We can save the NHS... but the real task is to improve it, to build the same sense of excitement and enthusiasm in the new millennium as there was when it was created.'

Speaking to an invited audience including health service managers, HA and trust chairs, GPs and senior health lobby group representatives, Mr Dobson underlined the need for openness.

'I think it is very important that we - and when I say we, I mean all of us - do speculate, discuss and debate how best to do things.

'The last thing I want to do is to create a situation where the people actually delivering the service feel that they don't have enough of a say and enough influence in what's going on.'

He added: 'I am sometimes regarded as old-fashioned in this respect, but I believe that if I want to know how to do something, then the people who are going to have to do it have at least as good an idea about it as management consultants do.'

Mr Dobson acknowledged that he 'recognised people's concerns about overload' but defended his attempt to push ahead with NHS reform on a number of simultaneous fronts, arguing that there was no alternative.

There were, he said, three groups of initiative: immediate projects to get waiting lists down and launch NHS Direct; a five-year programme to get primary care groups and primary care trusts under way; and '10 to 20 years of hard-nosed action' to tackle health inequalities.

'These are longer-term, but they have to be started now,' he said. It would take 'a generation' to reduce health inequalities.

But Mr Dobson held out the prospect of fewer new initiatives, suggesting that the government had moved on to a new phase.

'It is mainly a question of getting it done and delivering the goods,' he said. 'Operation strong delivery is getting under way.'

The New Health Network can be contacted via Peter Wallace at KPMG. 0171- 311 6551. e-mail peter.wallace@kpmg.co.uk