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Union threatens strike action over NHS job cuts

Written by: Staff

LONDON, Apr 24 (Reuters) Under-fire Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt today admitted the NHS faced financial problems but hit back at her critics as the country's biggest trade union warned job cuts could spark industrial action.

Some 7,000 job losses in the National Health Service have been announced in recent months but the Royal College of Nursing estimates the figure could hit 13,000, a third of them nurses.

The redundancies are being caused by an estimated overspend of 623 million pounds this year despite record investment by the government.

Hewitt, who provoked fury at the weekend when she said the NHS had enjoyed its ''best year ever'', told a hostile audience of health workers that patient care had improved.

The government had delivered on its promise to provide more, better-paid employees and to cut waiting lists.

''No wonder in every survey we do, patients tell us the health service in their experience is good and getting better,'' she told delegates at a conference held by the Unison trade union in Gateshead.

Hewitt, heckled throughout her speech, said the overall deficit was just 1 per cent of NHS's total budget, with 7 per cent of organisations responsible for 50 per cent of the overspend.

''It's a problem but it's a manageable problem,'' she said, vowing to push ahead with modernisation programmes.

The NHS has a workforce of some 1.3 million people overall -- 307,000 more than when Labour won power in 1997 making it the largest employer in Europe, with an annual budget of over 80 billion pounds.

The government's critics have questioned how the service could be making redundancies at a time of record spending, forcing Prime Minister Tony Blair to give Hewitt his backing at his monthly press conference today.

Asked whether she was the right person to see through reforms to the health service, he replied: ''Absolutely, because she's the person who's taking through a difficult change programme and standing up for what is right.

UNION STRIKE SUPPORT The row has dominated the media in recent weeks, with Hewitt's comments making front page news at the weekend, and Unison said it would support workers who vote to strike.

''We are being told that somehow jobs will be disappeared or left unfilled without patients and staff feeing the pain -] what utter nonsense,'' Unison chief Dave Prentice said in a speech.

''Unison cannot stand by and watch staff suffer in this climate of fear. We will be supporting members who feel that they have no option left other than industrial action to protect jobs and services.'' The Conservatives said Hewitt's comments showed the government was in ''total denial about the NHS crisis''.

''Labour's financial mismanagement of our NHS is responsible for redundancies and cuts across the country,'' it said in a statement. ''Their boom-and-bust approach is costing us millions.

This is an appalling waste of capacity.'' Blair has made reform of the NHS one of his key policy areas, putting an emphasis on treating more people in the community, which means hospitals do not need to be so big, and giving patients more choice as to where they receive treatment.


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