Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has criticised the government’s “ill-conceived” plans to remove bursaries for student nurses in England, vowing the Labour party will oppose the proposals “every step of the way”.
In a speech at Unison’s annual health conference in Brighton on Monday, Ms Alexander claimed the plans – which will see the end of free education for healthcare students and a switch to loans from August 2017 – were “not backed up by a shred of evidence”.
“Why would we choose to limit the nursing profession to those best able to pay as opposed to those best placed to care?”
She said the funding reforms risked reducing both the number and diversity of nurses needed when the NHS was already experiencing staff shortfalls.
“At a time when we are having to import nurses from abroad and hospitals are spending millions on hiring expensive agency staff, why would we risk making the staff shortages even worse by putting off the next generation of students,” she said.
“Why would we choose to limit the nursing profession to those best able to pay as opposed to those best placed to care,” she said to applause from delegates.
“Labour will oppose these ill-thought out plans every step of the way. And over the coming weeks and months Labour will stand side by side with Unison to save NHS bursaries from Tory cuts,” she added.
The shadow health secretary also said her priority in post was to ensure investment in both the current and future workforce.
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She referred to “shocking” statistics that showed more than a third of NHS staff said they had suffered from work-related stress in the last 12 months.
“The mental and physical well-being of staff will be at the top of my agenda. Because staff who feel valued, provide valuable services,” she said.
“No-one working in the health service should suffer ill-health as a result of their work. This should be true of any workplace, but it must especially apply to the NHS,” she added.
“Labour will oppose these ill-thought out plans every step of the way”
Chancellor George Osborne announced plans to axe bursaries in November’s comprehensive spending review, claiming it would allow universities to provide an additional 10,000 training places by 2020.
But unions have warned the switch to loans for tuition fees – currently around £9,000 a year – and maintenance costs will deter many people from applying to nurse training.
Concerns have also been raised about whether there would be enough clinical placements to support an increase in trainees.
A government consultation on the removal of bursaries for student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals in England is ongoing until 30 June.