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Nurses doubt future of 'free' NHS
Nurses treating a patient
The majority of nurses are committed to a free NHS
A third of all nurses believe the National Health Service (NHS) will no longer be free by 2010 and 15% think it should be privatised.

The findings, part of a Royal College of Nursing (RCN) survey, have been published on the eve of the RCN's annual congress in Harrogate, which starts on Monday.

Nurses were asked how they thought both the NHS and the nursing profession would develop over the next decade.

More than three-quarters (76%) of the 2,000 staff who took part in the survey were strongly committed to keeping the NHS free for all at the point of delivery.

But although half (51%) said it was likely the NHS would still provide free healthcare by 2010, a third (33%) believed this was unlikely and 15% said they did not think it should remain free.

Most nurses (73%) also believed that by 2010 it was likely or very likely that patients would have to pay for at least some routine procedures such as hip replacement operations.

RCN General Secretary Christine Hancock said: "Nurses have always been passionate champions of the NHS.

"They know that keeping the NHS free is the only way to deliver the best possible patient care for all.

"In the run-up to the general election, it's vital that all the major political parties make a renewed commitment to modernising and investing in the health service - not just over the next term of office but for years to come."

Public v private

In November Health Secretary Alan Milburn signed a concordat with the private sector.

The agreement allows more NHS patients to be treated more quickly using spare private capacity.

Mr Milburn said at the time: "NHS care remains free at the point of delivery, whether delivered by an NHS hospital, a local GP, a private sector hospital or a voluntary organisation.

"As a result of this agreement, more people will be able to benefit from treatment paid for by the NHS."

But some RCN staff see this as an empty promise.

RCN council member Linda Bailey, is one such sceptic.

Although she did not take part in the RCN survey, she does not support the public/private initiative.

Nurse attending to patient
Nurses fear charges for routine operations

She said: "I'm upset that the Labour party signed up to the concordat.

"But I believe that if the Tories had won the '97 election, we would not have had a free NHS.

"It would be a really bad move to start charging, but I don't think you can rule it out.

"If some of us can afford to pay and others can't, we are going to end up with a second rate NHS for those who are unable to pay."

The survey also asked nurses whether they intended to remain in the profession.

Of those who would still be below retirement age in 10 years' time (18-44 age bracket) a quarter (25%) said they intended to leave nursing within the next decade.

The most likely reason given was difficulties combining home and work life (42%) followed by dissatisfaction with pay (41%).

The BBC's Karen Allen
"The survey shows a quarter of nurses intend to leave within the next decade"
The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"Nurse shortages are a key issue in the election campaign"
The BBC's Sue MacGregor speaks to
Christine Hancock, Royal College of Nursing and Tim Evans, Independent Health Care Association

Conference coverage
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