Major jobs cuts on way in NHS, nurses' leader says
By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News
RCN Chief Executive Peter Carter: "We want an open, honest debate about NHS savings"
Major cuts in NHS staffing levels which could have "disastrous" consequences are likely after the election, the leader of the nurses' union has warned.
Royal College of Nursing leader Peter Carter believes the cuts will be much worse than the deficit crisis of five years ago when thousands of posts went.
Mr Carter told the BBC he feared the quality of care was going to suffer because of the squeeze on spending.
His warning came on the eve of the RCN's four-day annual conference.
More than 4,000 nurses are expected to gather in Bournemouth for the event, which is expected to be dominated by NHS finances.
Sir David Nicholson, the chief executive of the health service, has already warned that up to £20bn of savings will have to be found by 2014.
This works out as a saving of about 5% a year. The three main parties have all said savings can be made by improving productivity, by tackling management waste and redesigning services.
But Mr Carter said he felt politicians from all sides were being overly optimistic.
The NHS has been told to make savings
"There are obviously efficiency savings which can be made, but it is pie in the sky to think that the £20bn figure can be achieved through better productivity alone.
"The reality is that plans are being drawn up to take money out of the NHS and it will be disastrous for the future."
Reports of recruitment freezes have already started to emerge in places such as Essex, Lancashire and Dorset, but Mr Carter believes this is just the start.
He said he feared the reaction to the deficits crisis in 2005-06 - when the RCN estimate at least 22,000 NHS posts went with the majority of them from the 600,000-strong nurse workforce - could be repeated on a much grander scale.
"We were talking about £1.3bn then. So logic says if they take the same approach, the numbers of jobs going could be much greater and my fear is that front-line services will suffer.
"The problem is that it is so hard to identify and stop. The politicians have good intentions, but about 3,000 nurses a month retire so what happens is these posts are not filled. It does not need redundancies to reduce head-count."
Mr Carter urged the public to take notice. A poll of 4,000 people by the union showed 93% were unaware of the savings that needed to be made.
The survey also showed the NHS was the third most important priority in the view of the public - behind immigration and the economy.
The RCN has received support from the doctors' union, the British Medical Association.
Dr Paul Flynn, deputy chairman of the BMA's consultants committee, said: "It is inescapable that there will have to be come cut-backs in services."
The warnings by the leading bodies come after the parties spent the opening weeks of the election campaign promising to protect the NHS budget.
Labour has said it will increase the budget in line with inflation, while the Tories have promised it will go up above inflation.
The Lib Dems, although not making any direct promises about finances, have pledged to protect front-line services by making savings on management.
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