Cameron admits ‘mistakes’ over NHS reform

A major political battle has broken out over the future of Britain's NHS. Health reform plans, which stalled months ago amid public outcry, are to be relaunched with major changes.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will make 'substantive changes' to his government's plans to reform the NHS, after widespread public and professional opposition to the original proposals. He told an audience in London yesterday: 'we have listened, we have learned, and we are improving our plans for the NHS.'

The changes proposed by the original reform plan back in January were radical. 24,000 management staff were to lose their jobs. A whole category of administrative bodies would be abolished and replaced by 'consortiums' of GPs. Most strikingly of all, private companies would be allowed to compete with state-funded hospitals for NHS contracts. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley claimed the changes would save the NHS £1.7 billion each year.

But as soon as the reforms were announced, they ran into a barrage of criticism from patients, doctors and even Lib Dem members of the UK's ruling coalition. Under fire from all sides, the government backed down, launching a 'listening exercise' called the NHS Future Forum to hear people's concerns. This week, the Future Forum delivered its report, recommending sweeping changes to the government's policy.

Liberal Democrats, most of whom opposed the reform plans, are claiming a victory. They claim credit for forcing the government to reverse 'destructive' proposals and say that they've successfully defended the NHS from the threat of 'creeping privatisation'.

Meanwhile, Conservative backbench MPs are furious about what they see as unnecessary concessions to their weaker coalition partners, despite David Cameron's insistence that the crucial principles from the original plan are still in place.

But although commentators are still unpicking the details of the Future Forum's report and the government's response, it's clear that the changes are more than skin deep. Cameron's critics are already calling the policy shift a 'humiliating' U-turn.

Around the bend

So what's wrong with U-turns? Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher famously rejected them: 'You turn if you want to,' she once said. 'The lady's not for turning!'

Some Tory MPs wish Cameron would show the same spirit. Performing a U-turn feels like an admission of defeat. It says: we got it wrong. And voters tend to prefer politicians who know how to stick to their guns.

But although U-turns can look messy and indecisive, might they also be an important part of governing well? After all, famous U-turners in British politics include such statesmen as Disraeli, Gladstone and the Duke of Wellington. Isn't it unreasonable, with bafflingly complex issues like healthcare, to expect politicians to hit on the right solutions first time?

You Decide

  1. U-turns – a good thing or a bad thing?
  2. The original NHS reform plans were bold and sweeping. Now they are becoming more cautious. Is it better to be cautious than bold?


  1. Write a speech for a politician announcing a U-turn, but trying to convince people that it isn't one.
  2. Does the NHS actually need reforming? Do some further research and write a short article arguing for one side or the other.

Some People Say...

“It's better to make the wrong choice than to not make up your mind at all.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why are U-turns so unpopular?
A willingness to make U-turns can look weak and indecisive – voters tend to support confident leaders with strong principles that they stick to, even when the going gets tough.
That sounds good!
Yes, but there's a case for pragmatism too.
For what?
Pragmatism. It means that instead of following deep principles, you just see what works to achieve your goals. That can involve trial and error, which means U-turns. If something isn't working, a pragmatist just tries something else that might.
And has Cameron made a U-turn on the NHS?
He says he hasn't – but a U-turn isn't something that any politician would admit to.

Word Watch

GPs, or General Practitioners, are ordinary family doctors, as opposed to specialists who concentrate on a particular branch of medicine.
Lib Dem
Liberal Democrat. The Lib Dems are Britain's third largest party and are part of the ruling coalition government.
'Backbench' MPs are those members of parliament who don't have government jobs (as a minister, for example, or secretary of state). Backbenchers can rebel against their party leaders, and can sometimes cause a lot of trouble.


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