Burnham, a former health secretary under Gordon Brown, got several standing ovations at the Labour conference on Wednesday as he promised that the party would give people the right to be treated in their own home and make the NHS responsible for social care as well as medical problems.
Invoking the spirit of Nye Bevan, the architect of the NHS, Burnham said he would write to everyone in the country explaining what they could expect to get from the health service under Labour.
He was able to promise more cash for vital services after the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said he would raise money from mansion owners, tobacco companies and tax avoiders to protect NHS funding.
Burnham also followed an emotionally charged address from 91-year-old activist Harry Leslie Smith, who spoke of growing up in a “barbarous, bleak and uncivilised” time before public healthcare. His sister was tortured by tuberculosis while his parents could not afford the doctor’s bill and she had to be buried in a pauper’s grave, he said.
“I am not a politician, a member of the elite or a financial guru, but my life is your history – and we should keep it that way,” he said. “So say it loud and say it clear in this hall and across this country: Mr Cameron, keep your mitts off my NHS.”
Labour believes health will be a key electoral issue as voters start to worry less about the economy and more about the NHS as it begins to suffer from the coalition’s structural shakeup, declining staff morale after years of frozen pay and a budget not increasing fast enough to cope with the ageing population.
Burnham said this had already begun to show, with the winter A&E crisis turning into a spring crisis, summer crisis and autumn crisis.
“The party that created the NHS in the last century today sets out a plan to secure it in this. A rescue plan for a shattered service,” he said.
He reminded the audience of David Cameron’s “barefaced lie” that there would be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS, with the coalition embarking on a structural shakeup and opening the door to more privatisation in its first year of government.
“The plan that dared not speak its name before the last election is now plain for all to see: run it down, break it up, sell it off,” he said.
“So today we serve notice on Cameron and Clegg: Thursday 7 May 2015 – your day of reckoning on the NHS.
“A reckoning for trashing the public’s most prized asset without their permission. And a reckoning for a ruinous reorganisation that has dragged it down and left it on the brink.”
He said the NHS could not take five more years of Cameron, but that Labour would go further than rescuing a struggling service by expanding what it offered.
Burnham’s big idea is “whole-person care” so patients and carers have a single point of contact in the NHS rather than ringing the council for some things and the GP for others.
He also stressed that the NHS would be the preferred provider of treatment over private companies, saying it was “not for sale, not now, not ever”.
In sign of how the Tories will deal with attacks on their record with the NHS before the election, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, laid into Burnham for failing to mention that he was in charge of the Department of Health at the time of the Mid Staffordshire care scandal.
“Once again at Labour conference the most important part of a speech was forgotten – Andy Burnham failed to apologise for, or even mention, the tragic events at Mid Staffs. We will only improve the NHS if we are honest about terrible problems which happened because of a target culture Labour have never taken responsibility for.”
Hunt also attacked Burnham over the wider economic picture, saying: “You can’t fund the NHS if you bankrupt the economy – which is exactly what Labour did.”
The speech went down very well with Labour activists but the NHS Confederation, which represents health authorities, urged some caution over the plan to merge health and social care services.
Rob Webster, chief executive of the group, said “integrating services and ‘bringing in social care’ is easy to say and much more difficult to deliver.”
“There are significant financial and structural consequences that need to be managed,” he added. “What is clear is that a messy structural reorganisation of the administration of healthcare will get in the way of changes to healthcare delivery, and must be avoided at all costs.”