Nursing leaders were accused tonight by the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, of putting the interests of their profession above patient care after they called Government reforms a “really stupid idea”.
In a scathing attack Mr Hunt said the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) had allowed its trade union responsibilities to trump its responsibilities for raising professional standards.
And he accused the RCN’s leadership of ignoring criticisms levelled at it by the Francis report into the Mid Staffordshire scandal – while criticising the Government’s attempts to raise standards in hospitals.
His comments came after the RCN president, Andrea Spyropoulos, condemned Government plans to require new recruits to work for 12 months as a healthcare assistant before beginning their nursing training.
In a strong riposte Mr Hunt insisted that many nurses supported the plan – while pointing out that the RCN had come in for detailed criticism in the report itself.
“Rather than simply criticising the Government’s response, the RCN now needs to respond to the criticism levelled at it in the Francis report,” he said.
“I think [they] need to be very, very careful. “They have a conflict of interests and I think that, before they start criticising the Government for accepting recommendations that are going to improve compassionate care throughout the NHS, they need to answer those very, very serious criticisms themselves.”
In his report into the Mid Staffordshire scandal Robert Francis accused the RCN of doing “little to uphold professional standards among nursing staff” at Stafford or to address “concerns and problems being faced by its members”.
He recommended that the RCN should consider splitting its rolls into trade union representation and it Royal College function to improve training and professional standards. The RCN is yet to respond to the recommendation.
However they have criticised the Government’s plans to make nurse spend time doing more menial health care assistant rolls before they qualify.
Speaking ahead of their annual conference Ms Spyropoulos said: “It is an unbelievable thing to introduce that takes nursing back a hundred years. It is a waste of taxpayers’ money that will have absolutely no benefit to patients whatsoever.”
She added: “I was astounded, I remain astounded and I think it was a really stupid idea.”
However, Mr Hunt said her reaction was out of tune with the majority view in the profession. “What nurses on the front line are saying, a lot of them, particularly the older nurses, is that this was part of nursing training,” he said.
“Why would you want to become a nurse if you were unwilling to spend time washing patients, feeding patients, doing that really vital experience on the front line?"