Health service reforms will pave the way for NHS hospitals to earn up to half of their income from private work, it has been reported.

The current cap on income generated from private patients is typically limited to just a few per cent but is set to rise to 49 per cent in a move slipped out by the government last week, according to The Times.

It is expected to cause more friction within the coalition, with a senior Liberal Democrat warning that it was part of an ideological drive that many in the party would oppose, the newspaper said.

Labour claimed the plans showed prime minister David Cameron was determined to mirror health care provision operated in the United States of America.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham told the newspaper: “This surprise move, sneaked out just before Christmas, is the clearest sign yet of David Cameron’s determination to turn our precious NHS into a US-style commercial system, where hospitals are more interested in profits than people.

“With NHS hospitals able to devote half their beds to privatepatients, people will begin to see how our hospitals will never be the sameagain if Cameron’s health bill gets through Parliament.”

Lib Dem MP John Pugh, who chairs the party’s backbench committeeon health policy, told The Times there were serious underlying problems and itwas part of a drive many within the party would be unhappy about.

He added: “The Conservatives over a period of time appear to want to substantially reduce the role of the state.”

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley insisted NHS reforms would benefit patients. He said: “Lifting the private income cap for foundation hospitals will directly benefit NHS patients.

“If these hospitals earn additional income from private workthat means there will be more money available to invest in NHS services.

“Furthermore services for NHS patients will be safeguardedbecause foundation hospitals core legal duty will be to care for them.”

It comes amid claims that community health services are understrain, with some family doctors having 9,000 patients on their books, sparkingfears of a chronic shortage of GPs, according to the Telegraph.

Dr Michael Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance, which representsthe UK’sprimary care trusts, told the newspaper: “We’re not producing enough GPsas opposed to specialists.

“Our workforce is in the wrong place. It’s in hospital whereas it needs to be in the community. This is already beginning to show and it will get worse over the next year or so.”

The total number of GPs increased from 31,369 in 2000 to 39,409 in 2010, according to the Department of Health.

A spokesman added: “We are committed to increasing the numberof GPs and other frontline NHS staff to deliver the best care for patients.

“The number of GP training posts advertised in the 2011 recruitment round was up 20% on the previous year, and there is no evidence of difficulties accessing GPs.

“However, we are not complacent and the broad-based trainingprogramme we are working on with the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges is designed to make training more flexible, ensuring the right people become GPs.”