The new coalition government has made a great deal out of ring-fencing the health budget, giving the public the impression that the National Health Service will not suffer the cuts that other departments are facing. It is fast becoming clear, however, that there will be significant cuts in health like everywhere else. Plans put forward by the Conservative Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, if allowed to proceed, will undermine the structure and principles of the NHS in the largest overhaul of the service since its foundation.
The idea is to hand over the NHS budget to GPs, who will then commission services on behalf of individual patients. There has been little public discussion of the proposals, and the extent of the planned reorganisation - and the commensurate cuts in budget - is only now leaking from private briefings to key managers.
The NHS budget for 2010-2011 is £110bn and there are around 40,000 GPs working in England and Wales. At present, the budget is divided among the ten strategic health authorities (SHAs), which devolve it down to primary care trusts (PCTs). The strategic authorities set strategy and hold local delivery agents to account. The PCTs commission services from hospitals, GPs, opticians and primary services. Trusts have increasingly been forging strong links with local authorities to provide social care to the elderly and people with disabilities or other needs.
Under the plans, this infrastructure will be demolished and the SHAs abolished. The PCTs might survive, but with reduced powers and little or no authority over budgets or services; it is most likely that they will simply be employed by doctors as the administrative mechanism to purchase health services for individual patients. Richard Sykes, chairman of the London SHA, recently resigned in protest.
The last major reorganisation of the NHS took place in 2002 and has therefore had less than a decade to settle. The PCTs are midway through a restructuring process to separate the provider arm from the commissioners; now, no one seems to be sure whether this will proceed. There are undoubtedly bureaucratic tangles, but these are not insurmountable.
The new vision for GP-led commissioning envisages both sole practitioners and group practices handling the entire budget and commissioning services for their patients from hospitals, local authorities, private companies and primary services. There are questions concerning the details, not least whether GPs will want to take on this responsibility. Will single GPs be prepared or be able to commission such a wide range of services, or will they delegate to a consortium of local doctors? Will they subcontract the commissioning process to private companies involved in health care and so bring privatisation to the NHS by stealth?
It is not clear where public consultation fits into the GP-led model. The Health Secretary may argue that, because decisions are made with individual patients, this is inherently a form of consultation. But it would constitute a fragmentation of the process, as there would be no forum for leading discussion on, for example, investing in new specialist trauma services at particular hospitals, or reconfiguring stroke services. The SHAs have been the lead agencies conducting consultations. If they are abolished, this kind of consultation may also be lost.
It is also unclear how strategic decision-making will be conducted, if at all. Just as the schools system is being broken apart, taking away the strategic responsibilities of local authorities, so it is with health. The "big society" seems to mean the abolition of the collective.
Public health will be another casualty. Lives are saved through the promotion of healthy lifestyles and public education, as well as programmes to help people, say, give up smoking. Focusing such attention on health inequalities is one of the ways that we direct health services at the poor. But it appears that the expenditure on public health initiatives will be slashed from 7 per cent of the allocated budget to just 4 per cent.
PCTs are being told to reduce their management and administrative costs by roughly 50 per cent. The effect of this is to hobble any attempt at strategic management. Many targets have now been abandoned. Although there has been some unease at the rigidity of target culture, it is undeniable that imposing targets and holding people to account for specific time limits in accident and emergency units, for seeing a consultant and for performing operations have saved and improved the lives of millions of people.
Cities will be particularly hard hit by Lansley's shake-up. In London, there are probably several hundred thousand people who are not registered with a GP and they will not be able to get any access to health care. Anyone who is not eligible to register with a GP could be denied medical and health services.
Ask a doctor
Since its foundation, the NHS has been redistributive. It was designed to redistribute to the poor so that health inequalities are reduced. Its success has been patchy, but that objective is embedded at all levels and in every service. If strategic planning is abolished and service purchasing is fragmented, the aim of reducing inequality will be abandoned, too.
Lansley is a man on a mission who has been developing these ideas from his constituency, South Cambridgeshire. No one I have spoken to seems to know if he has been talking to the doctors themselves.
If his plans are fully instituted, GPs' contracts would have to be renegotiated and they would be well advised to consider whether it is to their advantage - and that of their patients - to take over responsibility for managing the NHS. It could be a poisoned chalice. Doctors could be made to take the blame if the plan collapses, leading the way to the wholesale privatisation of the NHS.
Also opaque is the extent to which these proposals form part of an ideological programme under the leadership of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the coalition cabinet, or whether ministers are being left to their own devices. There are similarities between the proposed education and health policies, but they do not appear to be co-ordinated as part of a coherent vision for the country. Every postwar government has come in with a clear ideology and a plan; for good or for ill, we knew what we were getting. The Conservatives have not presented this health plan to the public, and it is not even evident that they have made it clear to their coalition partners.
NHS agencies are being told that the new structure should be in place by 1 April 2012. There has been no announcement about any
of these changes - no public consultation and no critical review. Yet here they come.
Frances Crook is a non-executive director of a primary care trust and writes here in a personal capacity.
Journey of the GP
Before the Second World War, health care in the UK was piecemeal at best. The poor had little right to care - the lowest-paid workers could consult a GP, but their families could not - and many relied on charity.
This changed with the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. In a huge shift, each resident of the UK was from this point registered with a GP, who would act as the individual's point of entry into the medical system. In the early days of the NHS, GPs were demoralised, suffering from low pay and status. GP practices as they exist now began in 1955, when money was made available for individual doctors to develop grouppractices.
In 1990, while Margaret Thatcher was still prime minister, the "internal market" was formed; this allowed certain practices to buy services from other parts of the NHS. Successive reforms under Labour have left a similar system in place.
Meanwhile, GPs' status has improved, with recent contract changes allowing them to opt out of working during weekends and in the evenings. The press has criticised their pay as excessive. The figure is extremely variable, but a full-time practice partner now earns about £110,000, while a salaried GP earns approximately £74,000. A 2006 report showed that some GPs were earning £250,000 a year.