Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt today came under fire over a boast that the NHS was enjoying its "best year ever" despite job cuts and a financial crisis.
Britain's biggest health union Unison and Tory leader David Cameron both reacted with disbelief to the remarks.
Unison spokeswoman Anne Mitchell said: "Try telling that to some of the nurses, health care assistants, and other health workers who now fear for their jobs because of the deficits across trusts.
"Try telling that to patients and the public who are fighting to keep open some of their community hospitals and hospital wards."
Mr Cameron told Sky News' Sunday Live: "I heard Patricia Hewitt saying this and I just wondered what planet she's living on."
More than 7,000 NHS job losses have already been announced and the Royal College of Nursing, on the eve of its annual conference in Bournemouth, said the final number could be 13,000.
Managers are struggling to cope with a deficit estimated at more than £600 million.
However, Ms Hewitt told BBC Radio Five Live's Weekend News: "Despite the headlines, actually the NHS has just had its best year ever.
"We have just come through one of the coldest winters for decades and we haven't had any of the winter bed crises.
"We got the waiting times down to the lowest level ever."
She also said "so-called job cuts" in recent weeks mainly affected agency and temporary staff and were reducing a "very inefficient and wasteful form of spending".
But Ms Mitchell said: "These are jobs that have to be done. If hospitals get agency staff working there it's because they have got jobs that need doing. They need to cover weekends and holiday times. These are real jobs and real people."
Managers could "dress up" redundancies however they wished, she added.
"The ultimate result is that care of patients is going to be affected."
Meanwhile, the RCN said almost half of senior nurses have seen cuts in staff or training posts in the last year in the trusts where they work.
A poll of almost 1,000 senior nurses also found almost two-thirds (62%) of ward sisters and matrons feel they are under too much pressure, and 40% would resign if they could.
Eight out of 10 work unpaid overtime several times a week - with 30% doing so every shift.Reuse content