Hundreds of nurses descended on Westminster today in protest about NHS deficits and job cuts across the health service.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is concerned that, as hospitals cut back on services and staff to deal with nationwide deficits of more than £600 million, patient care will suffer.
The government has rejected this analysis, saying its reforms are simply trying to impose some financial discipline into the NHS. It argued most of the jobs being axed by trusts were achieved through cutting back on temporary staff, not sacking people.
However, when health secretary Patricia Hewitt attempted to defend the government's reforms at an RCN conference earlier this month, saying the NHS had had its "best year ever", she was slow hand-clapped and booed.
Speaking at the rally today, general secretary Beverley Malone repeated the chant that hundreds of nurses had used to cut Ms Hewitt's speech to delegates short, saying: "Keep nurses working and keep patients safe."
She continued: "We recognise that massive sums have been invested and huge strides have been made in improving the NHS in recent years. We also believe that we've come too far and achieved too much to sacrifice it because of deficits.
"That's why the RCN is saying this is not the time to leave trusts to sink or swim, this is the time for support and solutions, this is the time to put high quality patient care back at the top of the health agenda, this is the time to work together to tackle the deficits crisis."
However, NHS Employers, a branch of the NHS Confederation, which represents health service managers, insisted reports of major job losses were misleading.
They claimed to have research showing that average job losses ranged between 60 and 1,000 but in most cases, this was normally dealt with by freezing vacancies, reducing temporary and agency staff and redesigning services.
"We feel it is important to set the record straight because of the likely damage to staff morale and public confidence of persistent inaccuracies and speculation," said NHS Employers deputy director Sian Thomas.
"Locally and nationally, employers are working very closely with staff and their representative organisations, consulting on any changes and ensuring as much as possible that valuable staff skills are retained and patient care is not compromised."