Tens of thousands of people are signing a 'Save the NHS' petition directed at all elected parliamentarians in the UK, while the government launches a PR campaign to defend its health changes in England.
"The drastic National Health Service reforms being pushed through parliament may do long-term damage to a much-loved institution. But it isn’t too late for people to make their voices heard," say the petition (http://saveournhs.org/) organisers.
They add: "The government’s proposed Health and Social Care BIll represents the most radical change to the NHS is its 60 year history. The Bill will alter the way the NHS works by increasing commercial competition and changing the way services are commissioned and paid for."
The form of restructuring put forward by the coalition government has received an overwhelmingly negative response from doctors' representatives, other health service workers, patients, unions, voluntary and community groups, carers, policy experts and the public at large.
In response, Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Health Secretary Andrew Lansley have postponed a vote on the NHS and Social Care Bill and launched a two-month "listening exercise" in an effort to ease concerns over the changes.
But critics says that the initiative, which has already angered health workers by co-opting the slogan "We love the NHS" for a government leaflet backing the current proposals, has all the hallmarks of a 'PR exercise'.
The consultation is the government's attempt to combat widespread criticism about its plans to hand most of the NHS budget to GPs, who will be required to spend hours on administrative and financial issues, and to require competition between NHS and private sector health providers.
There are deep-seated concerns that the consortia replacing abolished Primary Care Trusts will be too unequal in their composition, capacity and operation to provide reliable, even care and services across England.
At this morning's press event, Mr Cameron stressed his support for the health service, and deputy PM Nick Clegg declared: "We are not going to sell off bits of the NHS to the highest bidder." But critics say the details and structure of the 'preferred bidder' scheme belie this claim.
It remains unclear whether, and how far, the government is prepared to compromise. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley declared today: "Competition is means to an end, not an end in itself... if it gets in the way of delivering services, it is not right thing to do." But health workers say that marketisation and de facto privatisation are already getting "in the way" - and certainly will do, under the proposed restructuring.
The 'Save the NHS' petition (http://saveournhs.org/) organisers comment: "There has been competition within the NHS for some time, although so far this has been mainly confined to the provision of services. The proposed legislation would fundamentally change this model so that the planning and commissioning of services would be subject to greater market forces, rather than being planned for the benefit of everybody, regardless of who they are or where they live.
"We think these drastic measures will eventually lead to inequality between different areas of the country, reduced public accountability and generally poorer levels of patient care. The reforms could also lead to some services being cancelled altogether if they are not ‘commercially viable’ - this could leave vulnerable and under-represented groups - such as the elderly or disabled - at greater risk of losing out.
"The financial cost of these reforms will be immense, and will take its toll on NHS budgets, which are already being squeezed by cuts."
They point out that major groups representing British healthcare professionals have voiced serious concerns about the scope and speed of the plans, including The British Medical Association, The Royal College of Surgeons, The Royal College of Nursing, The Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, Unite and Unison.
Many healthcare charities have also come out against the reforms, including The Alzheimer’s Society, Asthma UK, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, Diabetes UK, National Voices, Rethink, The British Heart Foundation and The Stroke Association.
"If Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Lansley think that they can massage away both popular and expert opposition to these destructive plans, or assuage concern with glossy leaflets, pleas of sincerity and a 'listening exercise' which is about getting others to listen to them, I believe they are mistaken," a healthcare professional told Ekklesia this morning.
Meanwhile, Mr Clegg is causing further anger and confusion among the Liberal Democrats, whose conference voted clearly against the government's NHS restructuring changes, by defending them.
In January 2011, when the reforms were being put together and he had an opportunity to shape them, Mr Clegg fully backed the changes on the BBC Andrew Marr TV programme, claiming that doctors “cannot look after the clinical well-being of a patient if at the same time [their] decisions don't lead to financial consequences.”
Yesterday the deputy PM claimed: "It is not just a question of presentation. This is also a question of making substantive changes to the legislation at the end of this two-month process."
But Mr Cameron has been careful not to promise changes to the Bill which stem from a recognition of the fundamental concerns of its leading critics.
At the media event on 6 April, he declared only that he would allow time for "modernisation" to be carried through, and for "improvements" to the reforms.
Shadow Health Secretary John Healey responded: "The test now is whether David Cameron [and Nick Clegg] will recognise the very wide concerns and respond with radical surgery to the Health Bill."
Mr Healey added that he remained doubtful, because the government had failed to listen during the official consultation on the changes and during debates in Parliament.
The coalition in opposition to the Health Bill has grown to include the unlikely combination of former Thatcherite minister Norman Tebbit and rap star NxtGen, who is responsible for the viral video hit 'the Andrew Lansley Rap' - which health campaigners hope will go high into the UK music charts.
The 'Save the NHS' petition can be accessed and signed here: http://saveournhs.org/
The NHS and Social Care Bill can be found in full here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmbills/177/11177.i-vi...