The Conservative Party has “an historic opportunity” to replace Labour as the party of the National Health Service, according to its leader David Cameron.

In a keynote speech to mark the 60th anniversary of the Service, Cameron promised to “work tirelessly” to earn the trust of patients and NHS staff to become “the party of the NHS”.

He went on to slam the Labour government for “badly mismanaging” the Service, adding that, in its drive for modernisation, “Labour haven't improved it, so much as ripped out its heart and installed a malfunctioning computer instead”.

Cameron stressed the Tories’ commitment to the NHS’ founding principle of equity, and underscored that commitment by promising the establishment of a proper NHS constitution and more money to help service improvement.

He went on to claim that the core value of universal healthcare is becoming more “elusive”, largely because of current trends, such as: increasingly sophisticated technology; patients’ growing recognition of responsibility for their own health; a shift in the role of the medical profession towards providing lifelong care; and developments in human communications and knowledge dispersal.

Furthermore, these trends “also explain why Britain is below the European average in terms not just of equity, but of overall health outcomes: people don't get the standards of care they need”, he said.

One particular area Cameron singled out, and one which is also close to the public’s hearts, is that of infection control. In order to address the problem of hospital-acquired infections such as the notorious superbug MRSA and Clostridium difficile, he suggests financial penalties for hospitals for each individual case. “I don't think hospitals should be paid - or paid in full - for a treatment, which leaves the patient with a hospital-acquired infection like MRSA,” he explained.

“Rather than a top-down system of targets, which encourages 'throughput' above all else, we propose a bottom-up system which prioritises quality as well as quantity. This will make managers concentrate on the effectiveness, not just the volume of treatment”, Cameron claimed.

But legislation to impose financial penalties on hospitals with poor infection control is already being considered, under a move by the government to tackle the problem once and for all.

Infection watchdog
The birth of a new, tough healthcare regulator - The Care Quality Commission – was announced by Health Secretary Alan Johnson back in October. Tasked with gaining control over healthcare-associated infections, the new watchdog brings together the experience and expertise of the Healthcare Commission, the Commission for Social Care Inspection and the Mental Health Act Commission.

But, while its predecessors’ scope was limited to flagging any problems that put patients at risk with the providers and government, the new body has been given extra powers to help it fight issues on the frontline, including: increasing the frequency of inspections of hospitals with high infection rates, including unannounced spot checks; undertaking investigations; issuing warning notices; fining providers; or closing services in order to get them in a fit condition for use.

Commenting on Cameron's speech, Dr Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, seemed to be supportive of his position. "David Cameron's analysis of the future direction of travel for healthcare is right…An equitable service delivering excellent care to empowered and informed patients is what we all aspire to”, she said, and welcomed his “renewed commitment to less top-down targets and a focus on patient outcomes”.