The Prime Minister spoke to nurses and patients during the hour-long unannounced visit to St Thomas' hospital opposite the Commons before giving a clear signal at Question Time that the nurses can expect an inflation- busting pay increase to tackle nurse shortages.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman appeared to contradict Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, who has admitted that the NHS is in crisis over pressures caused by the flu outbreak. "He did not come away thinking that the health service is in crisis," said the spokesman.
That may have risked repeating history with headlines saying: "Crisis - what crisis?" Twenty years ago, James Callaghan returned from Guadeloupe and earned the same headlines after dismissing an economic crisis, and went on to lose the general election. But a hospital spokeswoman said: "To be perfectly honest, we are not in crisis here. It has been very busy, but we are coping. It is no worse than it was last year."
Nursing unions accused the Prime Minister of making "empty promises" on pay and insisted there was a crisis. Liane Venner, Unison deputy head of health for the London area, said: "I think the fact that the Prime Minister has visited a hospital is a sign that the Government is taking the issue seriously but he cannot say there is no crisis. Ask any hospital nurse who is working very, very long hours for very, very low pay in an overstretched hospital and they will tell you there is a crisis."
The visit was kept secret from all but the management of the hospital, who were told 24 hours before his arrival, but Mr Blair later revealed on BBC Radio 5 Live that he had toured St Thomas' - where Florence Nightingale launched nurse training - because he wanted to see what it was like on the `front line'. "I went myself to a hospital last night and visited the accident and emergency department and talked to some of the nurses there," he said. "And what they told me was very, very clear. Demands are rising the whole time and they don't think they have the people to cope with it. I am well aware of the problem and I can tell you I am going to address it."
William Hague, the Tory leader, poured scorn on Mr Blair's visit, ridiculing the Prime Minister as "St Tony of Islington", raising comparisons with Diana, Princess of Wales, who was in the habit of making secret late-night visits to hospital wards, including the operating theatre, and visited St Thomas' on at least three occasions. Nurses warned against empty promises on pay. "Promises are not good enough. They are no good to a nurse working long hours for next to nothing," said the Unison spokeswoman.Reuse content