I slipped into a parallel universe last week when I attended one of the major political party conferences. It is a strange environment for anyone used to health conferences. For a start, the security systems you have to negotiate just to enter the conference site would, you feel, clear you to drive a lorry load of nuclear waste in a built up area next to an infants' school.
However fed up nurses might be with cuts to services, lost AfC appeals or the latest reorganisation, no-one has yet felt it necessary to protect the speakers at a nursing conference with sub-machine guns and airport-style scanners.
Once inside the conference, the difference in atmosphere strikes you. Delegates are mostly male, so the buzz is more of a growl, and there is a lot of marching around the communal areas, elbowing people aside. Nurses don't march at conferences, they drift, laden with conference bags, and talk to one another.
Speeches about transport, foreign policy and pension reform serve as a reminder that there is a wider world outside healthcare, about which people are just as passionate. Inside the healthcare sessions, a salutary reminder: while most professional organisations and commentators agree that changes are needed to the currently-proposed reforms, there are people who honestly believe they don't go far enough in breaking up a complacent, monolithic and static NHS.
It is frightening to hear people argue for a complete move to personalised health budgets, with every patient buying their own healthcare, with completely free choice. The word 'But …' floats in the air from professionals in the audience who actually deal with real people.
There was an excellent fringe meeting, led by patient organisation National Voices, about integrated services, which heard from a woman who had had to negotiate a very complex web of care services when caring for her husband with Alzheimer's disease. She wanted specialist nurses to help co-ordinate care, and save everyone time, money and stress. At last, a voice of common sense and practicality in a weird world.
- Rosemary Cook, director, Queen's Nursing Institute