Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Blair Backs Hewitt but NHS Unions Warn of Strike Threat

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Blair Backs Hewitt but NHS Unions Warn of Strike Threat

Article excerpt

Byline: JOE MURPHY;REBECCA SMITH

TONY BLAIR today found himself at loggerheads with key figures in the NHS.

The Prime Minister backed Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt's claim that the NHS is better than ever.

But he was immediately confronted with the threat of a work to rule by nurses, a strike by health unions and criticism from pioneering heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub and other top doctors.

With controversy mounting, Mr Blair used his monthly press conference to insist the health service was improving all the time - though he admitted it faced a "very challenging" year ahead.

Asked if he agreed with Ms Hewitt's optimistic verdict that had earlier been scorned by union leaders, he said: "She said it because waiting lists have never been lower since the health service records began, accident and emergency has dramatically improved in the last few years, cancer and cardiac care are the best they've been in the NHS, and we have record numbers of extra doctors and nurses. These are facts.

"That's why she said what she said."

Mr Blair insisted Ms Hewitt was the right person to drive through the NHS reforms, despite speculation she faces the sack in his next reshuffle.

Calling for a "sense of balance" in reporting, he went on: "Yes, there are problems, but there have been major, fundamental and lasting improvements in patient care over these past few years."

He added: "The reforms will make the extra money that has gone into the NHS work better for the patients.

"And the challenge and difficulty that we will have, particularly over the coming year, as the new system comes in, is a challenge and difficulty that I believe the NHS will in the end overcome and the benefits will be felt by patients."

Ms Hewitt today repeated her claim, saying: "The fact is, it has been the best year for patients."

But at the Royal College of Nursing conference in Bournemouth today, general secretary Beverly Malone threatened that nurses could impose a work to rule by refusing to carry out the unpaid overtime they currently do. …

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