Health ministers Dr Dan Poulter and Norman Lamb, together with shadow health secretary Andy Burnham discussed the need for greater investment in the community nurse workforce at the RCN's general election hustings.
The event, hosted at the RCN's headquarters in London on 23 March, saw the three MPs explain their parties' policies on nursing and the NHS for the general election on 7 May.
Mr Burnham spoke about his belief that the NHS must become a health service for the whole person, addressing the physical, mental and social needs of patients. He emphasised the need to move towards a prevention-focused NHS, as opposed to a reactionary model of care, which would require the development of the community workforce, he said. He described the NHS as 'in crisis' and 'messed up' by the Health and Social Care Act, which he vowed to repeal by the summer recess of parliament, should he become health secretary. However, he also said he would work with the organisations he inherited, and that there would not be another top-down reorganisation of the NHS under a Labour administration.
Mr Lamb explained that the community workforce was under significant pressure and needed to be invested in if it was to provide effective care for the future of the NHS. He also spoke about the disparity between physical and mental health, saying that there had historically been a 'significant bias' against mental health, and those with mental health issues in the NHS. He also reiterated the Liberal Democrats were the only party to have announced a commitment to providing the extra £8bn outlined in Simon Stevens' Five Year Forward View.
Finally, Dr Poulter said that the coalition had committed to hiring 10,000 more community healthcare workers, with 5000 of those position in nursing and allied health services. He also argued that the Conservative reforms of the NHS, along with increased investment in education and training had created a stable platform on which the health service could develop in the future. He disputed Mr Burnham's portrayal of the coalition's effect on the NHS, refusing to recognise Conservative Party figures showing that district nurse numbers had fallen from approximately 12,000 in 2003 to 6 500, and suggested Labour was responsible for the state of the NHS. He closed his arguments by urging the audience to vote for his party as 'a strong NHS can only be maintained by a strong economy'.
A particular point of contention came when a member of the audience asked the speakers to commit to not cutting antisocial hours pay. Mr Burnham committed without hesitation, while Mr Lamb and Mr Poulter avoided the question, instead committing to ensure that overall pay will not be cut. This led to Mr Burnham commenting that it was 'the longest no [he'd] ever heard'.
The audience of RCN members was particularly animated, cheering Mr Burnham's disapproval of the pay freeze and vow to re-establish the NHS Pay Review Body, and jeering when Mr Poulter suggested that down-banding of nurses was a rare occurrence.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt was absent from the debate, leading Mr Burnham to comment: 'Jeremy Hunt's absence sent a terrible message that he cant face the nursing audience. The RCN deserves politicians attention.'