TORY Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave NHS staff a “kick in the teeth” just when they needed his support, Labour said yesterday as heated negotiations on further strikes continued into the night.
Leading an opposition day debate on the winter’s unprecedented strain on Accident and Emergency units, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham slammed Mr Hunt for making “inflammatory comments” about striking staff — saying Tories only had themselves to blame for the bitter pay dispute in the health service.
Mr Hunt took digs at health unions in a statement on Wednesday morning, saying that only 13 per cent had voted for strike action — despite the fact that many of his Tory colleagues would be disqualified as MPs if proposed new strike thresholds were applied to elections.
Mr Burnham said the A&E crisis was a result of a shortage of GPs, the “collapse” of social care, the closure of walk-in centres and the replacement of NHS Direct with the controversial 111 hotline.
He said: “The simple truth is that our hospitals are full and operating way beyond safe bed occupancy levels. It is a system visibly creaking at the seams.” Mr Hunt accused his Labour counterpart of hypocrisy for speaking out against privatisation while presiding over the hiving off of notorious Cambridgeshire hospital Hinchingbrooke.
But he swiftly turned fire on working people, accusing Mr Burnham of changing his tune “to curry favour from the unions.”
The brouhaha erupted as Department of Health officials met unions to try to avert strike action next week. Mr Hunt joined the meetings in the early evening, but talks were still ongoing as we went to press last night.
Workers in England and Northern Ireland are due to walk out on January 29 in protest at Mr Hunt’s decision to veto even the measly 1 per cent pay offer recommended by independent advisers.
GMB national officer Rehana Azam blasted: “Mr Hunt caused the dispute by overruling the independent pay review body and he can solve it by allowing negotiations to come up with a fair way forward.”