Chancellor Gordon Brown's Budget was the government's first chance to respond with hard cash to three months of bad headlines about the NHS - and growing pressure to fund healthcare through private insurance.

Almost daily stories about scarce intensive care beds, winter pressures and sub-standard cardiac and cancer care raised expectations of a substantial response - as did an impending general election campaign and the perceived need for Labour to address its 'heartland' voters.

Unison issued a pre-election briefing, urging the chancellor to 'use his cash surpluses to give a much-needed boost to public services', while health union MSF called for him to 'loosen the self-imposed Tory shackles on NHS spending'.

'This is the year to do it, ' said Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe - although he was only urging a 'more than 3 per cent' year-on-year increase - half what the chancellor delivered.

It was also Mr Brown's first chance to address a cash crisis in the NHS. In November, the Healthcare Financial Management Association caused consternation by suggesting the NHS was heading for a£200m deficit this year.

Despite an injection of about£140m before Christmas - mostly to cope with rocketing generic drug prices - HFMA chair Barry Elliott said this week: 'I do not get the impression that this has got any better. '

NHS Confederation chief executive Stephen Thornton said: 'The Confederation has argued on behalf of health service managers that£600m was needed to keep the NHS show on the road for the next financial year.

'The additional funding above this level will be needed to make significant progress with modernisation.

'We are very pleased the NHS has been singled out. '