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Friday, January 8, 1999 Published at 06:41 GMT


Labour hits back over health crisis

Hospital beds are in short supply over the winter months

Labour has gone on the offensive over the beds and staffing crisis in the National Health Service sparked by an upsurge in flu cases.

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Health Secretary Frank Dobson has issued a report in which he places the blame for the current problems squarely on the shoulders of the previous Conservative government.

He released the paper as the government came under growing pressure following days of adverse publicity to attempt to resolve the crisis in the health service.

The report said: "Five years of Tory complacency and under-investment sowed the seeds for today's problems.

"Between 1992 and 1994, the Tories cut the number of nurse training places from 15,073 to 10,849."

[ image: Frank Dobson: Tories cut nurse training places]
Frank Dobson: Tories cut nurse training places
This year about 15,500 student nurses are expected to begin training - the highest figure for six years.

"If the Tories had matched that commitment to nurse training over their last five years of office there could now be over 14,000 extra nurses working on the wards."

However, the government was criticised in December by Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes for its spending on private agency nurses to fill the gaps left by a dearth of health service nurses.

The document also accuses the Tories of cutting general and acute NHS beds by 40,000, from 181,000 ten years ago.

The Health Secretary launched an inquiry last September into hospital beds to provide clear guidance on the future number, mix and use of beds needed.

A lack of spare emergency beds is troubling the NHS at the moment, and there have been reports that health services are having to turn away emergency cases because of the combined effect of the flu outbreak and a shortage of nurses. Only 20 intensive care beds were available in England over the weekend.

Tory 'lapses'

However, a source close to the minister said: "This report exposes the sheer brass neck of the Tory party in complaining we don't have enough nurses to cope with the winter crisis.

"They clearly have suffered from a memory lapse, a conscience lapse or a lapse in straight forward honesty."

The government has pledged extra cash to help the National Health Service cope under the strain of the latest flu outbreak, as well as saying that the number of people waiting for an operation has fallen again.

Signs of crisis

But Labour has itself come under fire from Opposition MPs who say that the current crisis - which has left patients waiting for hours in hospital corridors - is due to the government's preoccupation with getting waiting lists down.

And there was an outcry earlier in the week when it emerged that Norfolk and Norwich hospital had suffered such an unexpected increase of deaths that it had hired a refrigerated lorry as a temporary mortuary.

The opposition was given more ammunition on Thursday when it emerged that hospitals in Portsmouth had asked relatives and friends of patients to wash, feed and shave them because staff were too busy coping with the emergency admissions crisis.

The Portsmouth Hospitals Trust said the move came after hospital managers met to discuss how they could relieve pressure on staff over the busy winter period.

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