The Government should hand over its reign over the National Health Service to an independent body before it becomes “encased in political ice,” concludes a new report commissioned by health policy and research charity The Nuffield Trust.

Although he concedes that the Service will never be entirely free of political influence, Brian Edwards, Emiterus Professor of Healthcare Development at the University of Sheffield and author of the report, claims that the way the NHS is currently set up is “unsuitable” and that change is “essential.”

“It is time for the NHS to stop being a political football because of the negative impact it has on staff morale, decision-making, recruitment and doctor-patient relationships,” he stressed. “Ministers can never escape their ultimate responsibilities for the health of the people of the UK and creating more space for the NHS to modernise will require an act of great political courage and wisdom. Standing back is not an easy option but the risk is worth taking.”

Advantages outweigh disadvantages

The notion of an independent NHS has been floating around in parliament since 1979 and, according to the report, there are more advantages to be gained from switching to a stand-alone system than disadvantages.

It says the benefits include: the provision of “permanent and easily identifiable leadership” for the Service; having NHS opinions publicised by a body that solely represents the NHS; and more “sound” decision-making. Examples of downsides are: departments losing their direct involvement in Service management; and that MPs would have to bring any issues to local health authorities as opposed to the minister.

But given the seismic shifts the NHS has been subjected to in recent times – such as the establishment of independent Foundation Trusts and the devolvement of many services to primary care – many of those interviewed for The Nuffield Trust’s report were “frankly sceptical about the benefits of yet another organisational change at the top of the NHS.” Therefore, it warns that all issues and questions surrounding such a move must be addressed before any final decisions are made.