22 Feb 2012

Critic of NHS reforms demands health secretary apology

Speaking to Channel 4 News John Ashton, one of Cumbria’s top doctors, demands a government apology after being summoned to explain himself to local NHS chiefs for criticising planned health reforms.

NHS sign (Getty)

Professor John Ashton, who is director of public health for Cumbria, told Channel 4 News that attempts to silence him were authoritarian and very scary, and he wants an apology from the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley after he received an official letter warning that he could be in breach of the NHS code of conduct.

According to the letter, the code made it “inappropriate for individuals to raise personal concerns about the proposed Government reforms”, and Profesor Ashton was asked to attend a meeting with the chief executive of NHS Cumbria to explain himself. The professor said he understood it didn’t come from the local Primary Care Trust – but those “higher up the food chain”:

“this is a top-down thing that’s happened to me in the last week, but the Department of Health is seeking to blame the primary care trust and I will not allow that to happen.” He blamed Andrew Lansley for being behind the letter, asserting that the letter had been sent with the health secretary’s sanction.

Professor Ashton – who does have some links to the Labour Party – went on:

“I am outraged not just for myself, but for all the other people that have dedicated their lives to the NHS and don’t want to see the NHS taken over by carpet baggers who will asset strip it.”

‘Top-down bullying’ claim

The incident sparked angry scenes in the Commons yesterday, as the shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham branded it “top-down bullying”. He demanded to know if it was now policy “to threaten NHS staff with disciplinary action if they speak out about his reorganisation”. Mr Lansley denied knowing anything about the letter, and today Health Minister Simon Burns said it hadn’t come from any ministers, or from the department.

“Clearly PCTs should not be employing heavy-handed tactics”, he said. “Instead, they should be supporting GPs”.

Critical letter

Professor Ashton was among a group of 22 eminent doctors and surgeons who wrote to the Independent newspaper earlier this month, criticising the Health and Social Care bill, and said that, in his professional view, the reforms would cause irreversible long term damage. He told this programme the Government was getting ready to hald the NHS over to ‘carpet baggers and asset strippers’.

NHS Cumbria have insisted that the professor isn’t being called to a disciplinary hearing. In a statement, they said health service clinicians were always free to express their opinions as individuals, but the health service must remain non political – and the meeting was to ensure that Professor Ashton was ‘mindful’ of the differences.