Yesterday the two biggest health unions warned prime minister Blair about the state of the health service.
Royal College of Nursing general secretary Dr Beverly Malone told Blair he was ‘skating on thin ice’, while UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said that any NHS members who felt they had to take strike action would have the backing of UNISON.
Health secretary Hewitt felt the anger of the UNISON conference when her cynical platitudes were treated with jeers and derision.
Speaking at the RCN’s annual conference in Bournemouth, Malone was cheered and applauded when she said ‘if anyone needs turnaround squads its the department of health’.
She warned that nurses are prepared to oppose change if they perceive the future of the NHS to be threatened.
Malone said the ‘deficits crisis, or the cuts crisis, is another battleground on which the RCN has been arguing and campaigning’.
She warned the government that it should remember that NHS services, patient care and successful reform relies ‘on the goodwill of nurses’.
Malone told conference: ‘If they want proof they should take a long hard look at the unpaid overtime worked by nurses, an average of one day extra every week of the year.
‘Undermine and lose that goodwill and our healthcare system will be plunged into crisis.
‘So government, listen up, you need to stop treating us like overheads to be cut and start treating us like valued professionals.
‘Because if you don’t, the goodwill of nurses is going to melt away like ice in the Spring.
‘And believe me, right now, the ice that ministers are skating on doesn’t come any thinner and it is melting fast.’
The RCN is holding a mass rally and lobby of parliament on May 11th opposing NHS deficits, job cuts and ward closures.
At the UNISON health conference in Gateshead, general secretary Prentis warned: ‘Privatisation, PFI and policies built on quicksand are fuelling disastrous job cuts and de-stabilising the NHS.’
He added: ‘We are being told that somehow jobs will be disappeared or left unfilled without patients and staff feeling the pain – what utter nonsense.’
Prentis told delegates: ‘UNISON cannot stand by and watch staff suffer in this climate of fear.
‘We will be supporting members who feel that they have no option left other than industrial action to protect jobs and services.
‘We will not stand by and watch our members made scapegoats for hospital debt.
‘The Department of Health has been disingenuous about why, after so much investment, the NHS is now in financial difficulty.
‘It’s as if Trusts have somehow frittered away all they have been given. The truth is so extraordinary it is hardly believable.’
Health secretary Patricia Hewitt was heckled and booed by angry delegates when she addressed the Unison health conference.
For the most part her ‘reform or die’ speech in Gateshead was received in stony silence.
Praising the efforts of health care staff, Hewitt repeated her weekend claims that the NHS had ‘seen its best year ever’. She said despite the ‘stick’ she had received for the claim, she made no apology for it.
Her patronising attempts at compliments and assurances that the government is doing its ‘best for patients’, were met with angry cries of derision and frequent interruptions from delegates.
She said she understood the concerns of those threatened with job losses but that change and reform was necessary if the founding ethics of the NHS were to be preserved.
She was laughed at several times during a question and answer session after her speech, when Unison delegates attacked privatisation, job cuts, ward and hospital closures.
There were gasps of disbelief when she claimed PFI ‘is not privatisation but progress’, and also when she claimed the government was being ‘true to NHS principles’.
• Second news story
Academy donors deserve to be rewarded – Blair
Prime Minister Blair yesterday ignored the opposition of teaching unions and launched an impassioned defence of the wealthy backers of city academies.
He was quizzed at his monthly press conference in the wake of calls by the National Governors’ Association for a suspension of the academies scheme amid ‘unsavoury information’ about funding, as well as calls from the NUT and NASUWT to drop the academies programme.
Blair rounded on a journalist, saying: ‘I think if someone gives £2m of their own money, time, effort, energy, years of hard work, isn’t that something we should be saying “that’s a great thing that they have done”?
‘And as far as the honours system rewards people who contribute to society, contributing to the education of disadvantaged kids in the inner city is about as good a contribution to society as I can think of.’
Blair continued: ‘I know there are people who want to knock them for all sorts of reasons, I will passionately defend city academies.’
He claimed: ‘Their best advocate is not me. The best advocates are the parents that want to get their kids into the city academies.’
This was especially so, he said when a city academy replaced a school the parents ‘couldn’t wait to get their kids out of’.
He was asked why it was suggested to Chai Patel that he should turn a donation into a loan to the Labour Party.
Blair refused to answer, saying he did not want to ‘go down that winding road.’