Friday, January 8, 1999 Published at 13:53 GMT
Dobson admits health crisis
Hospital beds are in short supply over the winter months
Health Secretary Frank Dobson has admitted the NHS is in crisis and says the nursing recruitment problem is an "international disgrace".
The health secretary has issued a report in which he places the blame for the current problems squarely on the shoulders of the previous Conservative government.
But public workers' union Unison said the crisis will deepen unless NHS pay improves.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Dobson said: "We've been importing doctors and nurses for nurses for donkeys years now.
"The whole of the developed world does it and, in a sense, it is an international disgrace."
"Between 1992 and 1994, the Tories cut the number of nurse training places from 15,073 to 10,849," he said.
This year about 15,500 student nurses are expected to begin training - the highest figure for six years, claims the report.
It continues: "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."
He said he would like to see an improvement in the "pay and working conditions of nurses", including introducing more flexible shifts.
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.
It is due to report in the Spring.
The Conservatives have strongly rebutted Mr Dobson's claims.
Shadow health secretary Ann Widdecombe said: "Frank Dobson's attempt to wriggle out of his personal responsibility for the crisis in our health service is bogus and won't work.
"Nobody is going to be fooled by Frank's attempt to evade responsibility for a crisis that was caused by his obsession with fiddled waiting lists and distorted clinical priorities."
The Conservatives say the increase in nurse training places since 1995 was planned by the previous regime.
And they say the government's figures on trainee places do not add up.
The Conservatives claim it is only counting some nurse trainees and leaving out practice nurses working in the community and additional intensive care nurses.
But the Royal College of Nursing says the Conservatives did cut training places in the early 1990s.
However, it says the challenge now is "to make nursing an attractive profession once again" by raising pay and improving conditions and support.
The British Association for Accident and Emergency Medicine has blamed Labour's stress on getting waiting lists down for the current crisis in casualty departments up and down the country.
It wants a sustained increase in resources for staffing in A&E departments and for extra beds.