Lansley jeered as angry nurses attack cuts to frontline NHS staff

Health Secretary given rough ride at RCN conference as Labour tries to take advantage

The Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, will today accuse the Government of acting like masters rather than servants of the NHS in a speech to hundreds of disgruntled nurses, who yesterday jeered the Tory Health Secretary after he claimed frontline staffing levels had increased under his watch.

Mr Miliband will use his speech at the Royal College of Nursing's annual congress to announce a new NHS whistle-blower hotline, through which concerned nurses, doctors and patients can report staffing cuts and patient safety concerns directly to Labour.

This is likely to be received well to nurses in Harrogate as they yesterday laughed when Andrew Lansley told them to report to their superiors if there were not enough nurses to provide safe patient care. The Government has been accused to failing to improve protection for whistleblowers, despite pre-election promises.

The Opposition leader's speech comes amid growing anti-Government sentiment among NHS staff, many of whom are angry about top-down reforms, cuts to frontline staff and unpopular pension changes.

Mr Lansley rejected the RCN's evidence that at least 60,000 frontline nursing posts have been lost or have been earmarked for cuts in the past two years. Some nurses from the audience shouted "liar" after Mr Lansley, who appeared more confident and relaxed than he has in months, claimed staffing numbers had increased since the coalition took power.

However, there appeared to be confusion among ministers about official numbers. Mr Lansley admitted that 3,000 nursing posts have been lost since 2010 but said that there were 4,000 more doctors. Elsewhere, junior Health minister Simon Burns insisted that only 450 jobs had been lost. The RCN general secretary, Dr Peter Carter, told the nurses the NHS was "under attack" and predicted more major reforms would be needed to "clear up the confusion" left behind by the controversial NHS and Social Care Act.

In a rousing speech, Dr Carter said patients being cared for in corridors were reminiscent of the NHS in the 1990s. His words, and the applause they elicited, will worry David Cameron, who has desperately tried to assure voters that the NHS is safe in Tory hands.

While Mr Lansley was not booed, as some had predicted, the dissatisfaction among hundreds of nurses attending the three-day congress was made crystal clear during the debates. One of the motions passed overwhelmingly was: "The NHS is not safe in Andrew's Lansley's hands."

Mr Lansley may have left yesterday feeling only slightly bruised compared with last year, when nurses passed a vote of no confidence against the Health Secretary. But Dr Carter made it clear that the RCN would continue to make life difficult for the Coalition.

Dr Carter encouraged nurses to use their voter strength to kick the Government out of office at the next election.

"If you don't believe that politicians will want to listen, remember one thing," he said. " There is only one certainty in politics – elections... there are an average 1,800 nurses and healthcare assistants in each constituency in the UK. In hundreds of parts of the country, that's enough people to change a result and kick someone out of office."

Mr Miliband will ask nurses to work with Labour to protect the NHS.

"I want to forge a partnership with you now, about some of the big long term challenges facing the future of the NHS... and to protect the values of the NHS and to hold the Government to account for what's going on," he will say.

"You are not just on the frontline in our NHS. You are the first line in the defence of our NHS."

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