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NHS abroad plans are a severe case of Darzi déjà vu

Where were you on 26 March 2010? A strange question you may think. But I was reminded of that day when I switched on to BBC News to hear the lead story this morning, that the Government is to encourage leading NHS hospitals in England to set up profit-making branches abroad – to sell ‘the brand’ if you will –  to help fund services in the UK.

‘That’s funny’, I thought to myself, ‘that sounds vaguely familiar’. And then I remembered where I was some two and a half years ago – on that crisp Spring morning. I was at the Queen Elizabeth 11 conference centre in Westminster, to witness the fanfare for the launch of NHS Global

Prime Minister Gordon Brown was there. Peter Mandelson was there. Lord Darzi was there. And the then health secretary Andy Burnham was there too, to launch a new scheme designed to generate ‘significant’ funds for the NHS by following in the footsteps of BBC Worldwide, and exploiting a world-renowned UK brand abroad.

And then? It all went rather quiet – perhaps the Government got somewhat sidetracked trying to cling onto power. But even after the coalition had got its collective feet under the table, it didn’t seem as if there was any impetus to drive this forward, with Pulse reporting last December that no contracts had been secured since the scheme had launched.

But lo and behold, on this slow August news day, comes the news that the coalition plans to recycle…sorry…pursue this policy. Predictably, the plans have immediately divided opinion, with David Stout, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation claiming the initiative won’t divert attention away from running local health services, and with critics, including high profile GP and BMA Council member Dr Kailash Chand, describing the move as ‘privatisation by the back door’.

Of course, two and a half years is a lifetime in politics, and predictably, the Labour Party wheeled out shadow health minister Jamie Reed this morning to criticise the move as evidence of the ‘rampant commercialisation of the NHS’.

They might legitimately claim times have changed since those heady days of March 2010, and it may be easy pickings to accuse the Government of commercialising the NHS. But as with all open goals, if you’re planning to take a shot, it’s always wise to remember who kicked this off.

Gareth Iacobucci is Pulse’s chief reporter