The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) started its annual conference this week in the midst of a brutal attack on the nursing profession spearheaded by the Tory health minister Jeremy Hunt.
This attack is being carried out by the coalition as part and parcel of its drive to smash up the NHS, close hospitals and services and privatise the rest.
A vital component of this campaign is to demonise nurses and doctors, portraying them as being at the root of the crisis in the NHS caused by the government’s determination to slash £20 billion from the health budget in order to pay back the national debt caused by the banking collapse.
At the RCN conference, nurses leader Dr Peter Carter, damned the government’s proposals to reform the nursing profession as ‘stupid’.
The main plank of this reform is to require student nurses to work for one year on wards as healthcare assistants – the direct inference being that nurses only join the job to go to university and have no real interest in for the lives of the patients under their care.
A spokesman for Hunt responded to this criticism saying that the Francis report into Mid Stafford contained ‘quite brutal’ criticism of the nursing profession.
In fact, the Francis report into the 1,200 unnecessary deaths that occurred in the Mid Staffs NHS trust between 2005 and 2009 laid the blame squarely at the door of all the cuts in staffing that the NHS Trust managers had made in an effort to save the £10 million necessary to gain foundation trust status.
In his first report, issued last year, Francis was quite specific: ‘A shortage of staff, particularly nursing staff, was largely responsible for the substandard care.’
The RCN has made it clear that Mid Staffs far from being a one-off crisis is now set to be repeated on a vast scale throughout the country.
Since the unelected Tory-led coalition came to power three years ago, 5,000 nursing jobs have gone while at the same time 6,000 healthcare assistants jobs have been created.
Healthcare assistants, who are medically untrained and on low pay, are now regularly used to try and fill the gaps in patient care caused by nursing shortages.
According to a survey by the RCN, staff shortages in hospital wards and in the community now regularly fall below the levels of patient safety, in a large number of cases this is occurring on a daily basis.
On top of the use of cheap labour to replace trained nurses, the mass sacking of clerical and administration staff in order to cut costs has led to a situation described by the RCN as nurses ‘drowning in paperwork’ and unable to carry out their nursing duties.
The RCN has pointed out that one of the key recommendations of the Francis report was that the government ensures safe staffing levels across the NHS.
This recommendation has been completely ignored by Hunt in his response, and instead he calls for nurses to work for a year as healthcare assistants.
This is not so much a case of ‘stupidity’ on Hunt’s part as a concerted campaign to dump responsibility for all the failings of the NHS squarely on the backs of its overworked nursing and medical staff while using any failings as yet another excuse for closure or privatisation of hospitals.
The RCN and all the other health service unions must immediately be told by their members to break off all co-operation with this government over its Agenda for Change in the NHS and demand that the TUC call a general strike to defend the NHS by bringing down the government and replacing it with a workers government that will not just protect the NHS but extend it to meet the health needs of society.