The Secretary of State for Health admitted there was turmoil in the NHS. He said: "There is a crisis. I am not denying it and I have never said otherwise.
"Hospitals are facing immense difficulties. They are finding it difficult to cope now, but they are just about managing.
"All sorts of people are helping out. People are cancelling their leave and staff are coming in on days off, but if there is a sudden surge in the number of people needing to be treated it will be very difficult to cope." Mr Dobson said he wanted to see better pay, more flexible shifts, family-friendly employment policies and a new pay structure to make nursing a more attractive career.
With the nurses' pay review body due to report later this month, he said he hoped its recommendations would be "sufficiently high" to attract and retain nurses. He also said he hoped the pay award would not be staged, as it was last year.
His remarks came as nurses from the Philippines tried on NHS uniforms after being flown in for jobs they said paid three times more than at home, and as hospitals in Portsmouth appealed for help from patients' relatives because of staff shortages.
The British Association for Accident and Emergency Medicine said yesterday that the drive to cut waiting lists was diverting resources from emergency care and had led to the shortage of beds. It is demanding a meeting with Mr Dobson.
Dr Roger Evans, president of the association and a consultant in Cardiff, said the position was worse this winter because of the emphasis on treating patients for routine surgery: "That means there isn't room for emergencies. We have patients on trolleys in the department for six, eight, or ten hours at a time so it looks as if we are not performing when it is just because we can't move the patients on to a bed."
Yesterday, the pressures that threatened to overwhelm the NHS earlier in the week appeared to be easing. The health department said 23 intensive- care units had beds available, and doctors predicted the flu outbreak could have peaked and be on its way down in the northern and central regions.
Mr Dobson did not criticise managers for seeking staff abroad but said: "It is an international disgrace... [developed countries] talk about how much medical aid and assistance they are giving to the Third World and all over the developing world we are taking nurses and doctors away from them." Instead, he blamed shortages on the Tories. "At the beginning of this decade there were about 15,000 nurses going into training each year. The previous government reduced it to 11,000."
There are more than 8,000 vacancies for nursing staff in the NHS and 15,500 nurses are in training - the highest figure for six years, according to Labour.
The Tory health spokeswoman, Ann Widdecombe, hit back at Mr Dobson's allegations. "Labour are fiddling the facts to wriggle out of their NHS crisis... They refuse to admit that their obsession with the waiting list figures and distorting clinical priorities has been the real cause of patients waiting for hours on trolleys in hospital corridors, and the spectacle of refrigerated lorries being used as temporary mortuaries," she said.
"They actually cut back our planned increase in trainee nurses for 1997- 98 by 3 per cent, from 14 per cent to 11 per cent."