Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, yesterday reversed his decision to stay away from the annual conference of Britain's 400,000 nurses.
Mr Lansley had previously turned down an invitation to attend the Royal College of Nursing's Congress – prompting accusations that his promise to "listen" to health professional over NHS reforms was a "sham".
But yesterday, after his planned absence was reported by The Independent, the Department of Health announced that he would go after all – as part of a "listening seminar".
It is understood that Mr Lansley will meet a group of nurses, selected by the RCN, who will be able to put their concerns to the Health Secretary. However, he will still not take part, or address nurses, in the main conference hall. Instead the keynote government address will be given by Anne Milton, the most junior minister of the Health Department.
A Department of Health source insisted that Mr Lansley had always intended to take part in the Congress in some capacity and that negotiations had been going on with the RCN to work out exactly what role he might play. "He is coming up to listen to nurses and not lecture them," said the source. "It would be ridiculous for him not to go as part of the listening exercise."
However, even yesterday morning the RCN could not confirm Mr Lansley's attendance. When first contacted on Thursday they said Mr Lansley was not attending. This year's Congress comes against the backdrop of up to 50,000 job losses across the NHS – many of which will affect RCN members.Reuse content