New health secretary Jeremy Hunt must listen to nurses and re-build trust in the government or risk igniting further industrial action, Nursing Times has been told.
Andrew Lansley was last week replaced by Mr Hunt, previously the culture secretary, in a shock move as part of a ministerial reshuffle.
Ministers Simon Burns, Anne Milton and Paul Burstow were also been replaced by Norman Lamb, Daniel Poulter and Anna Soubry.
Nursing leaders said they were nervous about how Mr Hunt – who has little experience of health - would approach the sensitive issues of pay, terms and conditions, and urged him to show willingness to re-build bridges with the profession.
Unions will press for the new team to adopt a more conciliatory approach to divisive discussions including terms and conditions, pensions and regional pay. Specifically they will seek for Mr Hunt to come out against what they see as an “attack” on the national Agenda for Change agreement (see right).
Relations between staff and Mr Lansley soured as he pushed through his highly unpopular Health Act, which was opposed by unions, and he remained unpopular.
One senior nursing source involved in developing policy told Nursing Times ministers should avoid the key pitfall of alienating nursing on pay, terms and conditions. The source said: “This would put everything else that is being done at risk.
“There is the issue of always blaming nurses when things go wrong, and we don’t reward people very much at the moment. If we are talking about making nurses even more hard pressed then I wouldn’t blame them for walking away.”
Unions said a failure to listen on the part of new ministers could further exacerbate tensions with government, and raise the prospect of further industrial action.
RCN director of nursing and service delivery Janet Davies said: “Nurses are reasonable - we will give someone a chance and we would expect them to be talking to us very soon.
“But nurses are very tired at the moment, they don’t feel they have been supported. They have seen attacks on their pay and pensions and they are working harder than they have ever worked. They will start to get frustrated.”
She warned the new DH team: “There will be much less risk for patient care if they work with us than if they work against us.”
Head of health at Unison Christina McAnea, who is chair of the NHS staff side council, said: “Jeremy Hunt and his team need urgently to rebuild the trust of patients and health service staff.
“He could begin by restating the government’s commitment to national pay bargaining and the Agenda for Change system, and insisting that trusts abide by this.
“Beyond this, he needs to ensure the transition to the new system protects NHS values and principles, as cherished by the nation and celebrated by the recent Olympics opening ceremony.”
Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers, the body that represents NHS trusts and often negotiates with health unions on behalf of the government, also stressed the need for ministers to be cautious. He said: “Relationships count in the NHS… Pensions, revalidation, employee relations and staff engagement are all crucial issues that will need careful handling.”
Mr Hunt will also have to respond in coming months to the report of Robert Francis QC’s public inquiry into the care scandal at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust. Its recommendations are expected to have major implications for the NHS, particularly for nursing.