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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Mild-mannered nurses turn militant
By Jane Dreaper
BBC News health correspondent

Nurses were in a confrontational mood
It was Labour's Black Wednesday, according to many political commentators, and once again the health service has been at the centre of negative headlines.

Nurses heckled, booed and stamped their feet as the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, was forced to abandon the end of her speech during what was a stormy 50-minute session at the Royal College of Nursing's annual congress.

It was a glorious day in Bournemouth - with rays of sunlight glittering on the sea.

You're a brave lady to come here
Nurse delegate to the Health Secretary

But an object at the entrance to the conference hall gave a strong hint of the mood inside - it was a cardboard coffin bearing the words "RIP NHS?".

As Patricia Hewitt made her way to the seaside after Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons, 2,000 RCN delegates began to gather in the hall.

Many were wearing T-shirts branded with a yellow circle and carrying the RCN's new campaign slogan "Keep Nurses Working, Keep Patients Safe".

The mood, as one member put it, was electric.

Rising anger

Delegates had spent the past few months feeling angry about the threat of redundancy in some NHS trusts.

Patricia Hewitt
Patricia Hewitt got a rough ride

They were also concerned about their pensions, and a 2.5% pay rise, which, although being higher than the amount originally signalled by the Chancellor, was labelled "unjust" by the nurses' leader, Beverly Malone.

That anger was compounded during the past few days in Bournemouth - and as delegates mingled over coffee and at receptions, there was even talk of taking industrial action for the first time.

That is radical for a union whose rulebook dictates that members will never strike, because of the potential effect on patients.

Of course, union members who come to conferences like this one are activists, who tend to be more passionate about current issues than the average nurse.

And they certainly made their views felt just 90 seconds into the health secretary's speech - with heckles being quickly followed by angry shouts, placard waving, boos and jeers.

Disruptive atmosphere

From our view at the press bench to the side of the hall, it was certainly dramatic.

Why invite someone and then not let them finish speaking?
RCN delegate

The atmosphere continued to be disruptive until 17 minutes after she had started, Patricia Hewitt abandoned the rest of her script when the chairman of congress pointed out that members were impatient to ask questions.

The questioners didn't hold back - with the second telling Ms Hewitt: "You're a brave lady to come here."

It reminded me of seeing the then education secretary, David Blunkett, being given a rough ride by the National Union of Teachers in 2001.

That wasn't the infamous year when he was pursued by protesters until he took refuge in a tiny side office.

But there was certainly plenty of heckling and jeering, and eventually Mr Blunkett said: "Hell's bells, this is really a silly silly nonsense", as he chided his audience for not celebrating improvements in primary school results.

There was a similar moment of exasperation from Ms Hewitt yesterday, as she was shouted down while explaining that patients were broadly satisfied with their experiences of the NHS.

"You don't win as health secretary," she said. "If I say staff deserve credit for their achievements, you shout at me, if I don't, you shout at me."

Seasoned campaigner

Like Mr Blunkett, Ms Hewitt is a seasoned enough politician to be able to take these knocks.

But this reception was one of widespread, utter fury - and it can't have been pleasant to have been standing at that podium.

The nurses that I chatted to afterwards in the foyer felt they hadn't been listened to - and they seemed to be genuinely angry about a number of work issues.

Feelings were also running high among sources close to the health secretary.

One told me: "It was an unconstructive session, to say the least. Why invite someone and then not let them finish speaking?"

The RCN is certainly in the news after the encounter - though it meant that some of the broader issues that Congress explored, such as self-harm, didn't get much coverage.

Patricia Hewitt and Beverly Malone are very much still talking. I'm told they had a phone conversation late yesterday to fix up their next meeting.

When that takes place, the first item of discussion will no doubt be: "Where do we go from here?"

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