New health secretary vows to continue NHS reform agenda

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 19 June 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:1347
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    The surprise departure of Alan Milburn as health secretary will not derail the NHS reform agenda of Tony Blair's government, says his successor, John Reid. Dr Reid told BBC Radio 4's Today programme last week that he has been an “arch-moderniser” for 20 years, and “a Blairite before Blair was ever heard of.”


    Health secretary John Reid has been described as “abrasive,” “uncompromising,” and a “rottweiler”


    Dr Reid also dismissed complaints that as a Scottish MP he was ill suited to push through the English project of foundation hospitals. “When they appointed Sven-Göran Eriksson as England manager, there was a huge fuss about it, but actually what people want to know now is has he been a good manager?”

    Former health secretary Frank Dobson predicted, however, that the next revolt against foundation hospitals may surpass that seen in May, when 63 Labour MPs voted against the proposal. “There will be quite a lot of MPs who object that a Scot has been given the job of imposing on England what the Labour run Scottish Assembly has rejected. After the reshuffle, there will also be a few of them thinking that they are never going to get jobs after all, so they will vote as they think.”

    A more immediate challenge for Dr Reid will be negotiating a new contract for consultants, a problem that dominated the last months of Mr Milburn's tenure. Dr Paul Miller, chairman of the BMA's Central Consultants and Specialists Committee, said: “I will be writing to him immediately to request an urgent meeting to get things going and resolve the destructive impasse between the government and hospital consultants.”

    Consultants, who voted last month to hold a ballot on industrial action if the government fails to restart talks, may be hoping for a fresh start with the new health secretary, but his record suggests he is unlikely to take a softer line than his predecessor.

    Beverly Malone, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, euphemistically described Dr Reid as “a straight talking, heavy hitter.” Doctors writing into the BBC website called him “abrasive,” “uncompromising,” and “a rottweiler.”

    Dr Reid, who gained his doctorate in African history, was already in the public eye last week after he accused “rogue elements” of the security services of trying to discredit the government. Critics say he has never shown any great interest in health policy.

    As for Mr Milburn, most observers took at face value his claim that he was leaving to spend more time with his children. Several Sunday papers reported that he had received an ultimatum from his partner, consultant psychiatrist Ruth Briel.

    A considered verdict on Mr Milburn's action packed tenure may be some time in coming. While he presided over the largest ever injection of funds into the NHS, the primary sentiment among many in the health sector is one of exhaustion.

    Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “A challenging reform agenda is already under way in the NHS. The overriding priority of the new secretary of state should be to ensure a period of stability.”

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