Damning report is another blow for beleaguered Hewitt

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Indy Politics

Today's damning report on the treatment of the elderly in Britain's hospitals could not have come at a worse moment for the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt. As criticism mounts of the Government's handling of the financial crisis in the NHS, Ms Hewitt spent much of yesterday accusing the Tories of trying to undermine the service.

She said she "did not recognise" the total of 25,000 job losses which the Conservatives claim NHS hospitals are facing in order to cope with an expected £790m deficit. Ms Hewitt also accused Tory leader David Cameron of playing a "dangerous game" by voting against extra money for the health service while demanding improvements to it.

Mr Cameron's promise to "share the proceeds of economic growth" between public services and tax cuts would be "disastrous" for the NHS, she told BBC's Sunday AM.

Ms Hewitt is looking increasingly beleaguered as she comes under attack both from within and outside the service. A report from three Government inspectorates lambasts the NHS's poor care of the elderly, while a former senior official in the Department of Health has accused ministers of wasting millions invested in the service.

Health campaigners yesterday warned of a fresh wave of redundancies and claimed the total NHS deficit would soon top £1bn.

Pressure group Health Emergency said big cuts were imminent in Wales, parts of London, east Kent, Sussex, Hertfordshire, Oxford and York.

Geoff Martin, Head of Campaigns at Health Emergency, said: "It is clear that many Trusts haven't yet verified the full extent of their debts... If they don't take measures to balance the books by the end of this week they face additional penalties, so we expect a wave of new cuts and redundancies right across England and Wales this week."

The NHS budget for England has doubled since 1997 to £76bn. Bob Dredge, who was programme director for financial reform, told BBC 1's Panorama programme last night that the health service had failed to deliver value for money.

"It's a hard thing to say, but probably were I running the show, I wouldn't have been as generous with pay, I'd have been more ... rigorous on output and productivity," he said.

Speaking on Sunday AM, Ms Hewitt rejected suggestions that overall NHS manpower was now falling after years of growth. "When the figures come out for the last 12 months, we will see further increases [with] I suspect over 30,000 more staff in the NHS," she said.

Ms Hewitt called on NHS trusts to use their beds more efficiently and claimed £78m a year could be saved if trusts abandoned the practice of admitting patients the day before they were due for surgery.

Dr Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said it was time to change the way services were provided, including offering more care outside hospitals in the community.

"A fixation with hospital buildings is preventing the development of new and imaginative services," she said.