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Season of goodwill hasn't thawed relations between DH and GPC

I talked to both Andy Burnham and Dr Laurence Buckman at Christmas parties this week - and learned they haven't yet met each other

By Richard Hoey

I talked to both Andy Burnham and Dr Laurence Buckman at Christmas parties this week - and learned they haven't yet met each other

Each year in mid-December, politicians, GP leaders and medical journalists get together for the strange exercises in shadow-boxing that are the Department of Health and BMA Christmas parties.

Normally, the events are on the same night, demonstrating the same wilful desire for mutually assured destruction that the two bodies so often take to the negotiating table.

This year though they were on successive evenings, although judging from the noises coming out from both camps about swine flu vaccination, I don't think that should be taken as a sign of thawing of relations.

First up was the DH do, where a slightly flustered looking Andy Burnham addressed the assembled group of journalists, doctors and press officers.

He is a very different kind of secretary of state from his predecessor, Alan Johnson, who last year treated the room to a silky smooth lounge-room comedy act, a bit like a left-wing Bob Monkhouse.

Mr Burnham is amiable and enthusiastic, but also a touch awkward, shifting from foot to foot as he joked about Tiger Woods, enthused about the Government's Change4Life programme and assiduously avoided mentioning swine flu.

When I asked him, a little later, about the breakdown in talks with the GPC, he made clear he'd not had much time for the to and fro of negotiations.

The GPC, apparently, got a take it or leave it offer, and while Mr Burnham was keen to stress that some flexibility had been offered on access, he also admitted it hadn't been much.

On the failure to secure a national deal, though, Mr Burnham seemed pretty relaxed, reckoning that in any case 70% of the programme would end up being delivered by GPs – a prophecy that seems at least on its way to being met.

If the DH is playing it cool on swine flu, GP leaders are a little jumpy, as I wrote in this blog last week.

The following night, at the BMA do, GPC chair Dr Laurence Buckman told me he was far from happy with the way the negotiations had been conducted – or rather, the way information (he insists inaccurate information) about the talks had subsequently been leaked to the national press.

Dr Buckman is in a bit of a bind. He's sure that if GPs knew what he knew about the swine flu talks, they'd back him to the hilt. Unfortunately, he doesn't feel able to talk about what occurred behind the closed doors of the negotiating room, and so GPs don't know what he knows.

One thing I did learn though. I asked Dr Buckman if Andy Burnham had attended the talks in person.

‘I've never met him,' came back the response.

So the secretary of state for health and the chair of the GPC have never held a face-to-face meeting. It seems a little seasonal cheer is in order.

By Richard Hoey, Pulse editor

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