With the Health Bill already through the first stage in the House of Commons, it was clear Labour needed someone who knew the health brief inside out to have any chance of stopping the NHS reforms.
Since taking up the post, Mr Burnham has shown he means business. On his first day in the job, he made a high-profile offer to help the DoH set up clinical commissioning if it scrapped the Bill in return.
In a bid to galvanise opposition to the reforms and to persuade Liberal Democrats to rebel, he is now launching a ‘Drop the Bill’ campaign.
Labour’s shadow health secretary offers a scathing assessment of Liberal Democrats backing the reforms. ‘I don’t know how they can look at themselves in the mirror every morning when they are putting their name to this smashing to pieces of our NHS,’ he says.
‘They were not put in parliament to do this and if we can build up support in their constituencies and pile on the pressure I still believe we can stop this Bill.’
Fall of the Bill
Mr Burnham says he is not willing to settle for anything less than the fall of the Bill. There is ‘barely anything’ in it that he supports, he says, dismissing the reforms as a ‘total and utter shambles’ that will create an ‘unaccountable market using taxpayers’ money’.
If it is passed the NHS will be ‘damaged’ by the next general election, he warns. ‘The variation in services, standards and quality would be vast around the country by 2015. That’s what the public would see first if the Bill gets through.’
For this reason he says the NHS will be a ‘major issue’ at the next election, with the potential to bring down the government. He believes Andrew Lansley’s decision to press ahead with reforms despite concern from the public and health professionals is a ‘catastrophic error of political judgement’.
‘I think most people in the health service know that now is absolutely the wrong time to launch a fundamental reorganisation because of the overriding financial challenge,’ he says. ‘It’s that combination of financial challenge and reorganisation that I believe will prove utterly toxic politically for the government.’
Such is his concern about the Health Bill that he vows to unpick ‘the whole lot’ if Labour wins the next election.
He would scrap the any qualified provider policy, and return to the vision of NHS-run services as preferred providers that he set out as health secretary in 2009.
‘This is about saying that while changes have to be made, you don’t go straight to a tendering process,’ he says.
‘What do you is give the NHS the chance to change. And if over a period it hasn’t been able to change, at that point you would say: "Ok, we’ve got to open it up to a more open process".’
He is supportive of GP involvement in commissioning but rejects current proposals and vows to change these too if Labour is re-elected.
Integration of services
Commissioning and integration of services could fail unless clinical commissioning group (CCG) boundaries are co-terminous with those of local authorities, he believes.
‘It’s a complex job and I think it is crucial that it is done in partnership with local government. Integration won’t come from splintered commissioning groups because the relationships just won’t exist.’
Mr Burnham is keen to suggest that Labour would have taken a less confrontational approach to the pension reforms currently threatening to trigger a wave of public sector strikes.
He says the government has been ‘stoking confrontation’ for the past six months.
‘It’s pure posturing by the government. People will have their frustrations about some of what we did, but we would have done this in a much more negotiated way.’
When it comes to GP pay, however, he concedes Labour would be unlikely to have done anything differently.
He says with the financial crash the public’s views around fairness of pay changed, and as a result there need to be ‘honest reflections’ about that.
‘All of us have to accept that the economic outlook is very uncertain. I think we have to reflect on changing public feeling about that. It goes for my profession and it goes for GPs as well.’
Mr Burnham says while the 2004 contract has ‘lots to recommend’ it was wrong to allow the minimum practice income guarantee payments in perpetuity because this ‘stopped the new world fully taking effect’.
‘That residual block of money left in to protect historic income was a contradiction. I know these things are important during the transition but I think that was where the mistake was made.’
Mr Burnham’s straight-talking style and DoH experience will make him a formidable frontman for the anti-Bill campaign. It may yet give the anti-Bill campaign just a glimmer of a chance of success.