At least 20 NHS trusts are considering making consultants redundant as they struggle to contain multi-million-pound deficits, it has been claimed.

Doctors at the British Medical Association's annual conference in Belfast said they were in crisis talks with health service managers to try to avert job losses. Thousands of healthcare workers and nurses have been told they will be made redundant, after a year in which the NHS deficit topped £500m.

Now for the first time, doctors are being told they may lose their jobs. Two surgeons have been made redundant by the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals Trust, which has a £33m deficit.

Dr Paul Miller, chairman of the BMA consultants' committee, told the conference yesterday that 20 more trusts were planning doctor redundancies. No details have been given but the cuts involve acute hospitals as well as other organisations such as mental health trusts.

Dr Miller said: "We have managed to avert some redundancies and we are working to avoid more. Making consultants redundant is never the right way to deal with debts - just ask patients. While this may not be the end of the NHS, you can see it from here. The biggest problem now is that the NHS is no longer based around the patient-doctor relationship but the manager-politician relationship."

About 16,000 job losses have been announced this year in an effort to stem rising debts in the NHS. Many have been administrative workers and managers but more frontline staff are being affected.

The East and North Herts NHS Trust became the latest to announce job losses yesterday, with 500 posts - 10 per cent of its staff - expected to go in an attempt to save £18m. Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust also announced that it would shed more than 500 jobs and close 140 beds as it fights to cut a £27m deficit.

Community nurses in Waltham Forest have also claimed that their budget is being cut by 45 per cent because the local NHS trust is under pressure to make £17.5m of savings by the end of the next financial year.

They warned that the cuts could put vulnerable children under social services care at risk as well as hinder the care of elderly people living in their own homes.

Doctors at the BMA conference have spent the week voicing their strong opposition to the lack of funding for the NHS and the increasing involvement of the private sector in health care.

They agreed on a policy statement that called for "no further involvement of the commercial sector" in the NHS. The statement said the medical profession was "disturbed and dismayed" by current policy.

BMA leaders, nursing unions and other organisations are due to meet health ministers next week at a summit to discuss the growing crisis within the NHS.