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Furious nurses heckle Hewitt

27th April 2006

27042006_empty_corridor.jpgThe Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt was jeered and slow hand-clapped by nurses at the RCN conference in Bournemouth as she tried to address their fears about NHS deficits. This was the second time in three days that Ms Hewitt had been heckled by health workers, after she addressed Unison on Monday.

More than 2,000 nurses attended the Royal College of Nursing conference to hear how the cash crisis could be resolved, many were wearing T-shirts protesting against redundancies. Nurses were angered by her suggestion that debts were confined to a minority of trusts, and that nurses had had big pay rises. Her speech ended as the audience erupted in jeers.

But Ms Hewitt provoked an angry response when she insisted that most of the NHS is not in deficit, when more than 7,000 job cuts have been announced in recent weeks.

The health secretary said trusts would have to move away from using agency staff, which she said were not the most efficient way to deliver patient care. Agencies are estimated to cost the NHS £1bn a year.

She also stressed the improvements seen in recent years, including better pay for nurses, more staff and more lives being saved. She added that the significant majority of staff got a pay rise. But the health secretary was heckled at points throughout her speech, by an audience which has traditionally been more restrained than other union meetings.

Nurses told her they were angered by her claim at the weekend that the NHS had had its best year ever. At several points during the question and answer session Ms Hewitt was forced to stop and wait for noise to die down at the hall in Bournemouth.

At the end of the conference speech the health secretary left the hall to boos and chants of "keep nurses working".

Ms Hewitt's speech came on the day that more redundancies in the NHS were announced. The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital announced that up to 450 jobs would go over the next 12 months to tackle a £14.8m shortfall. Western General Hospital in Weston-super-Mare said it was closing 56 beds and cutting 60 jobs to deal with a £6m overspend.

Andrew Lansley the Shadow Health Secretary said that the Labour Party is no longer the party of the NHS. He added that he was sorry that it had come to this - respected health professionals with no respect for the health secretary.

Dr Beverly Malone, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), responding to the speech by the Secretary of State for Health said that thousands of nurses attending the annual Congress voiced their shock, anger and frustration at the gulf between the picture of the NHS painted by the government and their experiences on the wards, in the surgeries and in the communities.

She added that they know patients are suffering, jobs are being lost and workloads are increasing – and all because books can't be balanced. It was the hard work of nurses, she said, that had 'turned the government's reform proposals into reality.'

Beverly Malone had previously warned the government that when it comes to nurses' goodwill, 'they're skating on thin ice.' At the RCN Congress the Secretary of State saw for herself just how quickly that ice is melting.

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