There has never been a better time to end the “ludicrous, divisive and expensive experiment of the market in healthcare in England,” the British Medical Association (BMA) has told the new Health Secretary, Andy Burnham.

Ministers must also cut out waste and unnecessary expense in the NHS and admit when policies have not worked, Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of council at the BMA, told the Association’s annual representative meeting in Liverpool this week.

“Don’t cling to failed policies just because you think you might lose face if you are seen to have changed your mind. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to admit that new circumstances need new policies,” he advised ministers.

Dr Meldrum also urged all political parties to “be honest with the public and the profession. Stop trying to outbid each other about who’s going to spend more or cut less. It’s not a very edifying spectacle and the public and the profession have seen through the charade that seems to happen every time an election is looming.”

“The profession is ready to work with whichever governments are in power, to look at the hard choices, to make the tough decisions but on the basis of evidence, fairness, equity and trust, not just as apologists for another round of failed policies,” he said.

Pressures on NHS funding will intensify in the months ahead, he warned delegates. “The NHS is facing some of the biggest and most serious challenges ever, as we move from a period of sustained growth in resources to one of, at best, stagnation in funding, and at worst, stringency, hardship and even cuts, in our health service,” he said, and called for a whole-system, across-government approach to improve the health of the public, with every citizen involved from the Prime Minister downwards. This is the only way to slow the inexorable rise in pressure on our “National Illness Service” and cope with the financial and clinical challenges that lie ahead, he stated.

'Extreme concern'
The findings of opinion polls released by the BMA ahead of the conference show that doctors are “extremely concerned” about the impact of the independent sector on healthcare and that the public is worried about future funding of the health service in light of the recession.

94% of doctors responding to a poll for BMA News said they were worried about the future of their local health services if they were left to market forces, and 86% did not think the provision of NHS services by commercial companies was a good idea.

And, according to a nationwide public opinion poll conducted for the BMA, 77% of the public believes that cuts should be made in other government departments to protect NHS funding. When asked if taxes should increase to maintain the growth of NHS funding, 40%, agreed.

90% of respondents told the poll they feared that services could be cut, 85% believe there will be more charges for NHS services and 80% thought the NHS should prioritise funding for the most important services.
While 59% people responding to the poll said they supported private involvement in the NHS, 47% said there should be no further contracts for commercial companies to provide NHS services and 55% felt that the NHS internal market, where hospitals and general practitioners (GPs) compete, should be abolished.