The popular view of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is that it’s a mean, penny-pinching government watchdog set up by Labour to denysick peopleaccess tolife-saving drugs. So the news that the government will be stripping NICE of its power to determine which new drugs should be available on the NHS has been broadly welcomed. NICE wasn't expecting the move, though perhaps it should have been. The Daily Mail, predictably enough, is ecstatic, claiming a ‘victory for patients’ and heralding an end to ‘the ordeal of tens of thousands of patients being denied life-extending drugs every year’. Avastin all round!

Except that just because NICE won’t be responsible for drug rationing from 2014, that doesn’t mean rationing will go away. Someone will still have to make the hard decisions about which drugs are, and which drugs are not, affordable for the NHS. Despite its miserly reputation, NICE has recommended that the NHS make use of 83 per cent of the 380 drugs and treatments it has evaluated to date.

NICE doesn’t recommend a drug if the evidence for its effectiveness is shaky, or if its price is out of proportion to the benefit it confers compared to existing treatments. In the case of Avastin (bevacizumab), NICE doesn’t recommend its use for metastatic colorectal cancer because the treatment would cost on average £88,364 to provide a patient with one additional year of life; NICE’s cut-off figure is £30,000.

Taking the responsibility for deciding what should and what should not be prescribed on the NHS away from NICE means shifting it somewhere else: the Tories plan is to dump it on doctors. As the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, has explained, ‘We will move to an NHS where patients will be confident that where their clinicians believe a particular drug is the right and most effective one for them, then the NHS will be able to provide it for them.’

What this means in practice is that GPs will have to decide which patients should be denied the best treatment in order to balance the books. The main reason NICE was set up in the first place was to do away with 'postcode prescribing’. Doctors are warning that returning the decision-making to more than a hundred local GP consortiums is going to see postcode prescribing return with a vengeance.

Being given the responsibility for rationing healthcare isn’t going to do GPs any favours, either. Alan Maynard, a professor of health economics at York, is quoted in the BMJ as describing the future of GPs under the new scheme as ‘a little anarchistic and uncertain’. ‘The government is quite clear that it wants to give clinical autonomy back to the medical profession,’ he says. ‘If I were a doctor I would be quite wary of that.’

That’s putting it mildly. As soon as GPs take over the purse-strings they are going to be subject to intense lobbying from individual patients, patient groups, specialists and, of course, pharmaceutical companies. And they are going to be put directly in the firing line of public opinion. How many local GP consortiums are going to be able to withstand the tabloid onslaught that will follow a decision to deny cancer patients life-extending treatment? And what will happen to their other patients if they blow the budget on a handful with high-profile diseases?

One GP commenting on the news in the medical press writes: ‘kiss goodbye to the benefit of the Dr-Patient relationship and hello confrontation and bitterness.’ Another says: ‘The truth is slowly dawning on everybody. GPs will be held to account for all NHS rationing from now on.’ The way doctors feel about becoming the bad guys could have far-reaching consequences. Britain’s GPs work under a nationally negotiated contract with the NHS. If NHS work is made difficult and stressful enough, it’s always possible that they will choose not to renew that contract, taking the NHS down with them.