Cutting clinical staff to save money in the recession would be “catastrophic” for the NHS, surgeon and former health minister Lord Darzi has warned.

Addressing delegates at a medical innovations conference in Oxford last week, Lord Darzi, whose 2008 next stage review set out a vision for the NHS over the next 10 years, said focusing on local clinical leadership, rather than making cuts, is the way to drive innovation in the NHS and improve quality while reducing costs.

Medical and nursing staff are the ones able to identify the huge amounts of inefficiencies in the system

“Historically, the only way the NHS has dealt with a financial downturn is to make cuts. When cutting overheads, the easiest thing to do is to cut headcount, but this would be catastrophic,” he said.

“Medical and nursing staff are the ones able to identify the huge amounts of inefficiencies in the system and how they can be got rid of,” he added.

Lord Darzi, who is chair of surgery at Imperial College London, said clinical staff in leadership positions needed to work closely with commissioners and providers to improve systems.

“Otherwise it will be a very blind way of dealing with the financial crisis, which will have serious consequences on quality,” he said.

Royal College of Physicians president Ian Gilmore warned that replacing medical staff with senior nurses was an “easy fix” that must be avoided.

“There is very good evidence that services delivered by trained doctors are not only higher quality but more cost effective. [Trusts] have to look at the evidence, rather than the myths that doctors are too expensive,” he said.

Professor Gilmore said replacing senior medical staff with “cheaper alternatives”, could lead to serious problems for the NHS.

“There is a real risk that in 10 years’ time, when the economy is back on a more stable footing, we’ll have a Third World health service that will take another 10 years to lift up,” he said.