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Editorial Wednesday 22 February 2012: In praise of Professor John Ashton

Professor John Ashton is a distinguished public servant and public health doctor. I have met Professor Ashton: he is a good guy.

He has unfortunately recently come on the receiving end of some NHS management 'heavy manners'.


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What is Professor Ashton's heinous crime?

He wrote to the newspapers, to express his concerns about the Health And Social Care Bill.

Yes, just fancy. Why would a senior clinician do a thing like that?

It's not as if the Bill is in any way so controversial that the Government actually had to pause its progress through Parliament because it splits the Coalition's junior partner.

Nor is it as if, oh, let's say the Royal College of GPs (and indeed many other royal colleges), the BMA, the RCN and the RCM all felt, despite having originally welcomed some of the basic principles, that the Bill should be withdrawn.

Oh hang on, it is.

And they do.

The Health Bill is one unpopular thing. You can pick your public opinion poll - be it ComRes or ICM or YouGov or Ipsos MORI.

You get the picture.

Now if we look at the wording of the letter to Professor Ashton, it is interesting. It says, "you are a signatory to a letter which highlights your personal concerns about the Health Bill. It is inappropriate for individuals to raise their personal concerns about the proposed Government reforms. You are therefore required to attend a meeting with the Chief Executive to explain and account for the actions you have recently taken".

And despite this tweet from Professor Ashton supporting his employer, this letter reportedly came from his employer NHS Cumbria - which is in a line management relationship with NHS North West strategic health authority - which is of course now one-third of NHS North of England.

NHS North West's chief executive is Mark Ogden, a former management consultant with Coopers and Lybrand.

NHS North of England's chief executive is NHS Commissioning Board chief operating officer designate Ian Dalton.

Both are of course in a line management relationship with the Department of Health chief executive and NHS Commissioning Board CE-designate Comrade Sir David Nicholson, and via the Comrade In Chief, with Health Secretary Andrew Lansley (saviour, liberator).

I like the letter's use of the word "inappropriate". It is conveniently broad.

But of course, Professor Ashton may well be be looking forward to this meeting.

Not only have hundreds of NHS clinicians swung in behind him on Twitter (view the hashtag #iamspartacus), but the Prime Minister and Secretary Of State for Health have already written his answer for him.

Professor Ashton should tell the chief executive, "I am a clinician, and you are a bureaucrat. I am in charge now. It's bureaucrats working for clinicians; not clinicians working for bureaucrats. Now get me a cup of tea."

Because this NHS reform is all about putting clinicians in charge.

Isn't it?

Update: NHS Cumbria told Channel 4 News that the meeting in question is "not a disciplinary meeting". It sure as hell isn't now.