26/04/2006

Hewitt heckled by nurses at conference

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has been heckled by health workers for the second time this week as she delivered a speech at a nurses' conference.

Ms Hewitt met with jeers and a slow handclap at a Royal College of Nursing conference in Bournemouth on Wednesday.

Nurses attending the conference were angered by recent government claims that the NHS had enjoyed its 'best year ever'.

More than 7,000 job cuts have been announced by NHS Trusts in England in recent weeks and it is feared that as many as 13,000 jobs could be lost due to controversial government reforms.

It was also announced today that two more hospitals may axe jobs due to financial problems. The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital said that it may cut 450 jobs over the next year, while the Weston General Hospital in Weston-super-Mare announced plans to cut 60 jobs.

Ms Hewitt told the conference that although redundancies would be kept to a minimum, more job losses were inevitable as as the NHS faced further challenges.

Ms Hewitt was also heckled by angry delegates at the Unison conference in Gateshead on Monday as she tried to defend controversial government reforms.

The Health Secretary's speech came as healthcare think tank, the King's Fund warned that the NHS deficit could be up to £1.2 billion - much higher than had previously been estimated.

The research said that almost a quarter of NHS Trusts and health authorities are predicting a deficit for the financial year-end.

King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson said that further cuts in services were "almost inevitable" due to pressure on trusts to meet government targets, such as reducing waiting times.

He said: "The priority now must be to sort out the financial mess in which the service is embroiled and to concentrate on a few key areas. This means tackling long standing issues in some local services that should have been sorted years ago and getting a much tighter grip on costs and productivity. Trusts must avoid relying on short-term fixes, such as borrowing, as that will mask deeper financial problems. This will only prolong the cycle of job and service cuts that we are now starting to see.

"It's clear that these financial problems threaten to derail the government's reform agenda. Already, the NHS is likely to start this financial year with a debt approaching £1 billion. A significant worry is that hospitals will be left with too little cash to fund policies which would directly improve patient care. This will have to be repaid from the £5.4 billion extra the NHS received last year and comes on top of new cost pressures this year of £3.8 billion.

"The pressure is still on the NHS to meet increasingly tough targets, such as the 18-week inpatient waiting time target. This makes further cuts in services almost inevitable."

(KMcA/CD)

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