IT was all smiles as Alan Milburn opened the new regional headquarters of Diabetes UK in Darlington last week.

But behind the mutual expressions of admiration between the Health Secretary and the charity there are real concerns about how the Government plans to tackle the growing diabetes epidemic.

Mr Milburn took the opportunity to remind more than 70 Diabetes UK volunteer workers that the Department of Health has now developed a national framework for diabetes services which should improve standards.

He also pointed out that pilot schemes would soon get underway, including one in Sunderland, to pave the way for a national screening service to pick up the estimated one million undiagnosed diabetics.

Concern was voiced by Benet Middleton, Diabetes UK's director of policy and communication.

Mr Middleton, who travelled up from his Brighton base to attend the event, said while Diabetes UK was very pleased that a new national framework had been published by the Government, there was a question mark over protected funding.

Without a separate pot of money for diabetes treatment, the charity fears that extra cash for the illness could end up being spent on general health care.

"The new national framework is a major step forward. It was very late and very slow in coming out but the concern now is that the Government has not ring-fenced the money," said Mr Middleton. He predicted that the Government would be judged on the success of its diabetes strategy.

"You have to remember that diabetes accounts for nine per cent of all NHS spending. This is the acid test of Labour health policy. This will really test the degree to which they can make real improvements to major health problems," he added.

While he welcomed the nine pilot screening sites, Mr Middleton said there was doubt whether the small number of pilots would actually determine the best way to screen for diabetes. "These pilots on their own won't ensure we know the best way to do this," he added.

Diabetes UK remained committed to a national screening programme for undiagnosed patients, said Mr Middleton.

Tackled on the issue of why the screening service was not launched nationally, Mr Milburn replied: "The basic restraint is capacity in the Health Service. We have got to make sure we have got the staff to deliver the service. We have got to test it to make sure it works. Our services are often good but there needs to be more of them."