A total of 900 NHS staff have lost their jobs in the last five months because of financial problems and reorganisations in healthcare trusts, new figures show.

Ministers said just 167 of the 903 compulsory redundancies since May were among clinical staff, and although they were “regrettable”, said they represented only a tiny fraction of the NHS workforce.

Health minister Lord Warner said the figures, the first published since NHS trusts recorded deficits of £520 million at the end of the last financial year, proved Conservative claims of 21,000 job cuts across England and Wales were wrong.

“The figures we have published today show the true picture of redundancies in the NHS – just over 900, not the inflated figure some have claimed,” he said.

“We have always said there will be a minority of redundancies, which is regrettable, but employers will do all they can to support those staff.”

Last week, NHS chief executive David Nicholson was forced to admit he did not know how many job cuts there had been, but today he said the number of compulsory redundancies was small in an organisation that employs 1.3 million people.

“Many NHS organisations are reviewing the way they work, as part of their duties to ensure that the quality of patient care is delivered in the most efficient way,” he said.

“Inevitably this means assessing the numbers of staff they need and how best to deploy their skills and experience.”

The Department of Health has today published guidance on how NHS trusts can best help their staff, which includes ring-fencing vacancies for at-risk staff and ensuring anyone made redundant is given an interview and help from a personal advisor.

The guidance also recommends hospitals think twice before looking abroad for healthcare staff, and suggests using internal pools for newly-qualified staff so they can be offered jobs when vacancies arise.

However, the Tories stood by their figures, saying that announcements made by trusts since March suggested there were up to 21,000 compulsory redundancies, voluntary redundancies and natural wastage where posts were not filled.

“The loss of posts directly contributes to the fact that nurses, physiotherapists and others leaving college cannot find jobs. Contrary to Labour party propaganda, staff are not being redeployed in community posts,” said shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley.

“In the 2005 census they quote, it shows that in that year the number of health visitors and district nurses fell.

“The Labour government should be ashamed that with the rising investment in our healthcare services nine hundred have been made compulsory redundant.”