Liza Williams: Prof John Aston's disciplinary case shows that Health Bill critics will not be silenced
JOHN Ashton knows the NHS inside out.
He has been a doctor for 42 years, has written books about its history and had led public health services in the North West and currently Cumbria.
He is not a man to toe the "company line", he speaks his mind and has been a vocal critic of the coalition's Health and Social Care Bill since it was first mooted.
As he points out, there is no clause in his contract against this.
But last week a letter was posted through his door, summoning him to a meeting. He had signed a Royal College of GPs letter against the bill, and this conflicted with his duties as an NHS director, it suggested.
Professor Ashton, who is Liverpool born and bread and currently splits his time between his Woolton home and a base in Cumbria, was outraged.
He blames the Department of Health, not the local Primary Care Trust (PCT) for the step. The PCT has said it was not a "disciplinary" hearing, and health secretary Andrew Lansley has denied knowing about the meeting.
But the letter comes in the wake of a decision to exclude organisations against the bill from Government talks on its future.
Lansley also made barbed comments in a Liverpool speech, levied at the British Medical Association (BMA) and other critics.
If the Government want to hear and address worries about the bill, they are doing a very good job of hiding it.
Prof Ashton was inspired by his Liverpool family- many of whom worked for the NHS in its early days- to fight the bill.
He and many other experts believe it will deconstruct the NHS's fabric, leading us down an American insurance system, resulting in inferior care for those who can't afford to pay.
He says this is the situation his Liverpool family in the 1940s were fighting against.
Some, including Lansley, would say critical doctors are scared of change.
In the stinging speech the health secretary delivered in at the Liverpool Echo Arena last month, Mr Lansley cited the BMA's opposition to the NHS in 1948.
Self interest, he inferred, was at play.
He used the then Labour health secretary Nye Bevan's "politically poisoned" quote to describe the association.
In an ironic twist of party sides, maybe Prof Ashton is considered "politically poisoned" by the Government, as an open member of the Labour party.
But Prof Ashton's record show he isn't against change. He says he believes the NHS needs to evolve every few years to meet changes in demand for healthcare.
In Cumbria he has led on many reforms that some people would deem controversial and bold- reducing hospital beds, moving care into the community, giving GPs more power.
But it is the threat of privatisation contained in the bill that he finds deeply distressing, a threat which he believes will destroy the service his Merseyside family worked so hard to introduce.
"This not reform" he said, "this will totally dismantle the NHS. Once this has happened it will be almost impossible to reverse."
The Government, which denies there is a threat of privatisation, may not want to listen to Prof Ashton and those like him. But as this case proves they won't be forced into silence.
Liza Williams is the Liverpool Post and Echo's health reporter. Follow Liza on twitter HERE.