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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 April 2006, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Hewitt heckled by furious nurses
Patricia Hewitt
Patricia Hewitt was addressing nurses in Bournemouth

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has been heckled for the second time in three days by health workers.

Ms Hewitt was jeered and slow hand-clapped by nurses at a conference in Bournemouth as she tried to address their fears about NHS deficits.

Nurses were angered by her suggestion they had had big pay rises and debts were confined to a minority of trusts.

Her speech ended in confusion as the audience erupted in jeers. It came after she addressed Unison on Monday.

More than 2,000 nurses attended the Royal College of Nursing conference - many wearing T-shirts protesting against redundancies - to hear how the cash crisis could be resolved.

The Labour Party is no longer the party of the NHS
Andrew Lansley, Shadow Health Secretary

More than 7,000 job cuts have been announced in recent weeks.

But Ms Hewitt provoked an angry response when she inisisted: "Most of the NHS is not in deficit."

She added: "I know that you're angry about the possibility of redundancies among some hospital staff. Anybody facing the prospect of redundancy is entitled to feel that."

The health secretary said trusts would have to move away from using agency staff, which she said were not the most efficient way to deliver patient care. Agencies are estimated to cost the NHS 1bn a year.

She also stressed the improvements seen in recent years, including better pay for nurses, more staff and more lives being saved.

"The significant majority of staff got a pay rise. The pay rise over the last few years in the public sector has been significantly in advance of the private sector."

But the health secretary was heckled at points throughout her speech - by an audience which has traditionally been more restrained than other union meetings.

And when jeers threatened to drown her out, the chairman of the conference asked her if she had finished her speech.

Anger

Ms Hewitt replied she had made all the points she wanted to, giving nurses the chance to ask her questions.

Nurses told her they were angered by her claim at the weekend that the NHS had had its best year ever.

At several points during the question and answer session Ms Hewitt was forced to stop and wait for noise to die down at the hall in Bournemouth.

She complained that delegates would "shout" whatever she told them.

"I'm sorry if you don't like the answers. But at least ... at least let me give them."

When it was finished, the health secretary left the hall to boos and chants of "keep nurses working".

Ms Hewitt's speech came on the day that more redundancies in the NHS were announced.

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital announced that up to 450 jobs would go over the next 12 months to tackle a 14.8m shortfall.

Western General Hospital in Weston-super-Mare said it was closing 56 beds and cutting 60 jobs to deal with a 6m overspend.

Earlier in the week, RCN general secretary Beverly Malone warned the government was skating on "thin ice" and the government risked leaving nurses feeling under-valued.

She said the profession would consider some form of industrial action such as stopping working unpaid overtime if the situation continued.

RCN general secretary Beverly Malone said the reaction of nursing was an illustration of the "frustration" they felt.

"I think what happened was the reality of what nurses are feeling."

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "The Labour Party is no longer the party of the NHS.

"I am sorry that it should have come to this- respected health professionals with no respect for the health secretary.

"Patricia Hewitt has brought this on herself. She is being held to account for her gross mismanagement and incompetence. It is intolerable arrogance that she is still denying the reality. Will no level of humiliation make her understand?"

And Liberal Democrat health spokesman Steve Webb added: "The government's permanent revolution and constant meddling has demoralised the bedrock of the NHS."



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