Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Jeers for Hewitt as She Tells Health Staff of 'Best Year Yet'

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Jeers for Hewitt as She Tells Health Staff of 'Best Year Yet'

Article excerpt

Byline: JOE MURPHY;REBECCA SMITH

PATRICIA Hewitt was heckled by NHS workers today as she continued to claim patients have never had it so good.

An audience of 1,000 trade unionists at first greeted her in stony silence but then began jeering halfway through her keynote speech.

Some hissed but many started laughing out loud when she declared: "The fact is, it has been the best year for patients."

Tony Blair, meanwhile, backed the Health Secretary at his monthly news conference but failed to stop mounting controversy over the Government's health reforms.

Critics were joined by heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub and other top doctors as well as nurses' leaders.

There were threats of industrial action - including a work to rule and a possible strike - from both the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) and the Unison conference in Gateshead where Ms Hewitt was speaking.

Despite pleas from their leaders to show her respect, Unison delegates became more boorish as Ms Hewitt went on. Some waved banners which read: "Sack Blair, not health workers."

Amid boos she said: "We've written a very big cheque for the NHS and we are proud of it. But it's not a blank cheque...overspending hospitals and organisations do have to put their houses in order." Unison leader Dave Prentis said his members would not stand by "in a climate of fear" and said the union would support those who felt obliged to strike.

"We are being told that somehow jobs will be disappeared or be left unfilled without patients and staff feeling the pain - what utter nonsense."

Mr Blair surprised observers by throwing his full weight behind Ms Hewitt.

But he admitted the NHS faced a "very challenging" year.

Asked if he agreed with Ms Hewitt's optimistic verdict, 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."

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. …

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