The leaders of the three main parties made history last night as they crossed swords in the first ever televised prime ministerial general election debate.

When the debate turned to the NHS, the leaders were quizzed on their visions for the future of the healthcare system - particularly care for the elderly.

We are closing A&E departments and maternity wards, and wasting money on computer systems and bureaucracy

Gordon Brown said he wanted to help more people remain in their own homes rather than having to move to care or nursing homes.

Video:

Election debate

He also set out a number of “personal guarantees” for patients, including that they could see a cancer specialist within two weeks, get diagnostic tests within one week, get an operation within 18 weeks and see a GP at weekends and in the evenings.

“I want people to know that public services are personal to people’s needs, and that’s why we need to give these guarantees to individual patients,” the prime minister said.

David Cameron thanked the nurse who had asked the question and spoke of his experiences with the NHS - describing it as a “wonderful, wonderful thing”.

Referring to his son Ivan, who died after battling illness, he said: “What it did for my family and my son I will never forget.

“I went from hospital to hospital, A&Es in the middle of the night, sleeping in different wards and different places - and the dedication and the vocation and the love that you get from people who work in the NHS makes me incredibly proud of this country.”

He said the Tories had made an “exception” of the NHS by pledging to increase spending in real terms, but also said he wanted to make sure “we improve it, we expand it, we develop it, we make sure that it’s got more choice and more control for the patient”.

Mr Cameron also said he wanted to make cancer drugs available to people who need them.

Nick Clegg said it was easy to say how much everybody needed and relied on the NHS, but difficult to say how it would be protected when money is tight.

Arguing that the priorities at the moment “are all wrong”, the Lib Dem leader said 5,000 managers had been recruited in the last year while A&E and maternity wards were being closed.

“What is going on? We are closing A&E departments and maternity wards, and wasting money on computer systems and bureaucracy,” he said.

“I want to turn that on its head so we can protect the NHS that we all rely on.”

Mr Brown and Mr Cameron argued over why the Tories did not back Labour’s guarantees on cancer and being able to see GPs in the evening and weekends.

But the Tory leader said the UK’s death rate from cancer was worse than Bulgaria’s despite all Mr Brown’s investment, and claimed Labour’s National Insurance rise would take £200m out of the NHS which could be better spent on a cancer drugs fund.

Mr Clegg said it was a “phoney debate” and appealed for a “bit of honesty” as he set out plans to cut NHS bureaucracy and invest the money on the front line.

“People know that money is tight,” he said.

“People know that you can’t promise something for nothing.”

Leaders clash over healthcare at general election debate

Leaders clash over healthcare at general election debate

Leaders clash over healthcare at general election debate