Patricia Hewitt was heckled, booed and jeered yesterday by health workers angered by job cuts in the NHS as the Government fought to retain credibility on its flagship health policy.
The Health Secretary was greeted with a stony silence when introduced to the 1,000-strong audience at a conference for members of the healthcare sector of Unison in Gateshead.
Despite being asked to show Ms Hewitt some respect, some delegates booed her after she accidentally implied that healthcare assistants had no qualifications. As boos began, she said: "Forgive me. I should not have said that. I was wrong and I apologise."
There was also laughter from delegates when the Health Secretary attempted to explain the reasoning behind some of the recent reforms to the health service, which have led to job cuts. A clearly uncomfortable Ms Hewitt was met with more silence from the floor during a question and answer session with the audience - while those asking the questions were warmly applauded.
Unison's head of health, Karen Jennings, said: "She felt the rawness of the way people are experiencing problems at the moment and was taken aback by some of the issues that were raised."
Ms Hewitt said on Sunday that the NHS had just enjoyed its best year, in spite of mounting deficits leading to ward closures and nurses being made redundant. She acknowledged yesterday that she had received "stick" for the comments, but said that she stuck by them.
Tony Blair, at his monthly press conference at Downing Street, when asked whether he had confidence in his Health Secretary to deliver NHS improvements, said: "Absolutely - yes." He acknowledged he was finding it difficult to convince the public that the NHS was getting better while deficits were forcing hospitals to shut wards and make nurses redundant. But he laid the blame on the media for lacking balance in its report on the health service.
"The big problem we faced when we came to power was that there was rationing by waiting list. People waited months and sometimes years," said Mr Blair. "If we get to the point at 2008, where patients book appointments at the time of their convenience and have an average wait of about eight weeks from being diagnosed by a GP to their operation, it is an end of that problem in the health service. That is what I think Patricia is saying."
Meanwhile government figures showed that manager numbers had risen nearly twice as fast as the numbers of doctors and nurses over the past year. Over the past decade the number of NHS managers has increased every year, nearly doubling from just over 20,000 in 1995 to just under 40,000 in 2005.
The Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Steve Webb, said: "The NHS is having to divert money from employing frontline staff to paying a whole army of managers to respond to endless government initiatives and reforms. If the Government stopped its constant meddling, we would need fewer administrators and could spend more money where it is needed most."
Mr Blair admitted that the health trusts that have overspent will be bailed out by taking money from trusts in surplus, and that this will mean delays in expansion for primary care trusts which were budgeting to improve their local services.
"We are keeping money back but if we are to give it to the trusts in deficit is it is only on the basis that they have proper recovery plan in place," he said.
Voices from the front-line
* KULVINDER LALL, Heart surgeon, Barts, London
"I think it was the best year for patients because waiting times have come down, but it has been a poor year for staff, especially with all the cutbacks, and they have low morale. At the end of last year a decision was supposed to be made at St Barts on the private finance initiative, but the decision was delayed and we got the go-ahead about four weeks ago. The level of investment that the Government has put in over the last year has to continue. Financial input has been good, but this is a short-term measure - and so the decline of waiting lists is short-term."
* JIM KENNEDY, GP, Hayes, Middlesex
"It has been going well, in part, for the NHS. There are elements that are better than ever. But, while we have a service that is better, we also have a growing need - an ageing population, more people with more problems, but parts of the service have not got their act together. What are the politicians going to do? The sorting out of health care has to become apolitical. Otherwise it becomes part of a silly slagging match between parties and we'll never sort it out. At Hayes we are close to £30m overspent. Where are we going to get the money from?"
* JEAN MARJORAM, GP practice nurse, Southampton
Patricia Hewitt is talking complete rubbish. She doesn't live in the real world; it seems that the Government isn't listening. We have had new contracts and huge pay rises for GPs this year which were designed to deliver payments by results, but all it has meant is that I have spent more time filling in forms and ticking boxes than dealing with patients. The Health Secretary goes on about how there are more nurses than ever before,
but there are also more patients than ever before. I love my job but more and more I find myself having to apologise to patients, and I hate that."
* ZEBA ARIF, Psychiatric nurse, Enfield, London
"I see the problems as a nurse but I have also seen them as a patient. I needed a knee operation last year. I had to wait three months before I could have a scan, so for all that time I wasn't on a waiting list. Then I had to wait again. My operation was going to be cancelled. When I calledthem to say they couldn't do this to me, suddenly they said they could fit me in. It's ridiculous. My mother was also admitted to hospital last year. I had to give her basic nursing care myself because there weren't enough staff. That doesn't sound like the NHS Ms Hewitt is talking about."Reuse content