The Royal College of Nursing’s chief executive has today insisted industrial action must remain an option for nurses and warned that the health reforms could become the “biggest disaster in the history of our public services”.
In a keynote address to the union’s 2011 congress, RCN chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter poured scorn on claims that the £20bn of efficiency savings planned by the NHS would be reinvested in services, and that frontline staff and patient care would not be affected by cuts.
He warned government: “In all my time in this job, never before have so many of you spoken to me about industrial action. Friends, we have a very challenging few months and years ahead of us and all avenues must remain open, as long as we remember to always keep our patients at the heart of every decision we make.”
This was “the most important moment in the history of our health service”, he told delegates. “Across the NHS billions, literally billions, of pounds are being slashed from budgets. Nurses and other colleagues are losing their jobs, vacancies are being left unfilled, and the standard of patient care is being threatened.”
Referring to research published by the RCN today, which found nearly 10,000 posts were earmarked to be cut across 21 hospitals trusts, he said: “The majority are clinical posts, and 46% are nursing jobs. That’s almost half.
“Decision makers have told us, that these job losses will be made in a way which won’t impact on patient care,” Mr Carter said.
“That’s impossible. You can’t remove thousands of frontline staff and expect things to carry on as normal.”
Westminster had said that “the £20bn that’s coming out of the NHS will be put back in”, he added. “This is known as the QIPP [quality, innovation, productivity and prevention] process, which to date has been nothing but an illusion.
“We’ve seen no evidence of where this money is going to be reinvested, when that’s going to happen, and who decides on where it goes.
“What’s more, we’re also seeing attacks on vital specialist nurses.
“What the decision makers don’t seem to know is that specialist nurses save the NHS money year on year. They keep patients out of hospital, reduce re-admissions and speed up recovery.”
The Health and Social Care Bill “could well turn out to be the biggest disaster in the history of our public services – if organisations like the RCN are not listened to, and listened to now,” Mr Carter warned.
“Primary care trusts and strategic health authorities have had their problems, but they have empowered nurses from ward to board. We’re worried that given the abolition of PCTs and SHAs, the structures which have enabled nurses to reach senior positions will go with them, leaving us where we started: with decisions made without nursing input.”
The RCN was not calling for nurses on the board of GP commissioning consortia “purely for the sake of it – we’re demanding it because we know what impact it has on patient care, on the delivery of services, and on the health of entire communities”.
He dismissed prime minister’s David Cameron’s claim that the government had decided to “pause, listen, and engage” with concerns over the health bill: “We know that on the ground, where PCTs are shedding staff, senior nurses are leaving the service, and GPs are forming pathfinder consortia, nothing is being paused. “
And he warned Westminster not to pick a fight with nurses over Lord Hutton’s recommendations on public sector pensions. “Let’s just reflect on what’s being asked of you – pay more, work longer, get less,” he told congress.
“What kind of deal is that? The government should listen to us: the NHS pension scheme currently has an annual surplus of £2bn – they do not need this fight at this time.”
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