British PM vows reforms will protect health service

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Prime Minister David Cameron vowed Tuesday to protect Britain's state-run National Health Service (NHS) and ensure it remains accessible to everyone in his latest defence of plans for radical reform.

Addressing criticism from trade unions, patient groups, medics and opposition politicians, Cameron will warn in a speech in London that modernisation is the only way to prepare the NHS for future challenges.

"Changing the NHS today is the only way to protect the NHS for tomorrow," he said in pre-released excerpts, warning that the pressures of an ageing population and rising treatment costs will severely strain the service.

Last week, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley warned the NHS faces a £20 billion-a-year ($32.8 billion, 22.4 billion euro) funding gap over the next four years without major reform.

In a bid to move past rows over the detail of the changes proposed by his Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, Cameron will issue five guarantees to seek to persuade voters that he has the NHS' best interests at heart.

He insists it will remain free to access and will not become a US-style private system, the reforms will not affect the delivery of efficient and integrated care or low waiting lists, and spending will continue to increase.

"I will make sure at all times that any of the changes we make to the NHS will always be consistent with upholding these five guarantees. There can be no compromise on this," Cameron said.

The government wants to take away control for managing budgets from local boards and hand it to family doctors, and give the private sector a greater role in running health services.

However, the British Medical Association (BMA), the trade union for doctors, is among numerous groups expressing strong concern, particularly the increased role of private firms.

Cameron's Lib Dem deputy, Nick Clegg, has also warned against introducing too much competition, and the plans have become a test for the coalition.

The government temporarily suspended the legislative process of bringing in the changes, to allow for further consultation, and a decision on where to go next is expected within weeks. It is likely the plans will be significantly changed.

NHS reform is a major political issue for Cameron, who has worked hard to give the Tories a softer, more caring image.

His promise to protect the NHS, bolstered by his experience of the service in caring for his disabled son Ivan, who died aged six in 2009, was a key feature of his election campaign.

© 2011 AFP

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