Politicians clash as NHS staff protest outside

NHS staff lobby parliament over health service reforms
NHS staff lobby parliament over health service reforms

David Cameron and Tony Blair battled over the state of the NHS in the Commons today, as hundreds of staff protested against the government's health reforms outside.

The Conservative leader said health professionals were "dismayed by the incoherence of current government policies" and the damage they were causing to the NHS.

He was speaking as members of the British Medical Association (BMA), Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unison among others lobbied parliament for an end to the constant reorganisations of the NHS and more time for trusts to deal with their deficits.

Mr Blair accused the Tories of wanting to remove the centrally-imposed targets and standards that have improved care since 1997, with their idea of NHS independence. He noted that one of the party's own health spokesmen acknowledged the improvements.

But Mr Cameron replied: "Healthcare professionals are not here protesting about our policies but protesting about his cuts."

A new YouGov poll commissioned by the TUC finds that 52 per cent of voters believe the NHS is worse under Labour. This contrasts with the 63 per cent who said their own experience of the health service was good or very good.

Almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of respondents disagree with the introduction of more competition between hospitals. A further 76 per cent want the reorganisations to stop and for staff to be allowed to get on with patient care.

Today's rally is organised by NHS Together, an umbrella group of health unions, and staff will today make clear that while they welcome the extra investment in the NHS and accept reform is needed, they object to the way it is being carried out.

"The government needs to listen to NHS staff. Ministers are in trouble on what should be home territory for a Labour government. They need to reflect on why such an important policy area has gone so badly wrong," said TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.

The campaign agrees trusts must balance their books, but questions making hospitals do this in such a short time and in a way that leads to job cuts and ward closures. Government figures suggest there have been 900 compulsory redundancies since May.

It objects to the way independent sector treatment centres (ISTCs) are paid regardless of how many NHS procedures they perform, and although the campaign says it is not against reform, it condemns the constant reorganisation of the service.

Mr Barber said ministers could still change public opinion because voters had said their experiences of the NHS were good, "but they must stop giving the impression that the only way to rescue the NHS is to inject competition and market discipline".

Today's rally is the culmination of months of unrest about NHS reforms, which included the extraordinary sight of health secretary Patricia Hewitt being slow-clapped when she tried to tell a nurses' conference the service had had its "best year ever".

Last night Ms Hewitt said the government was committed to pushing ahead with its reforms, saying: "If we know that change will deliver better quality care and better value for money for taxpayers, then standing still is simply not an option.

"However, what will never change is our commitment to safeguard NHS values."


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