A “misreading” of the Tory manifesto may have resulted in people thinking they are pledging 50,000 “new” nurses if they win the General Election, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said.
Her comments came just moments after Health Secretary Matt Hancock insisted there will indeed be 50,000 more nurses and 40 new hospitals under a Conservative government.
The veracity of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s General Election manifesto promises have been called into question, with Labour saying the nursing figure was disingenuous when it included 19,000 nurses who the Tories wanted to re-train, and another 12,000 from overseas.
It means only 19,000 posts would be filled by new nurse trainees enjoying the return of maintenance grants – bursaries scrapped by former Tory chancellor George Osborne.
After unveiling a poster in Westminster with a picture of Jeremy Corbyn and the words “Prime Ditherer”, Mr Hancock told the PA news agency: “What we’ve got is a really clear manifesto to get Brexit done and then concentrate on the domestic priorities of people, for instance 50,000 more nurses, 40 new hospitals, 6,000 more GPs.
“These are all costed deliverable commitments.”
Pressed on whether there will be 50,000 more nurses than the current number, Mr Hancock said: “Precisely. 50,000 more nurses. There’s currently just over 280,000 nurses in the NHS and our commitment is to take that to just over 330,000 nurses in the NHS.”
Mrs Morgan joined Mr Hancock at the poster in Westminster and said there are “lots of different ways” to make sure that in 2025 there will be “50,000 more nurses”.
Mrs Morgan told PA: “I think there’s been a confusion sometimes, people reading that as 50,000 new nurses.
“I think sometimes that’s a deliberate confusion and sometimes that’s just a genuine misreading of the manifesto.”
Asked if she would agree there is confusion created by her party’s wording relating to this pledge, Ms Morgan said: “No. Because I think 50,000 more couldn’t be clearer, but actually I think an awful lot of people have decided to say that there is a confusion.
“It’s not. 50,000 more means 50,000 more nurses by 2025.”
Mrs Morgan said the way to hit the 50,000 figure can be through a “variety of different routes”, adding she did not think her party’s pledge was misleading.
A Tory source told reporters on Sunday: “We know that we have an issue with retention of the nursing workforce and so we would have plans to keep more nurses in the profession.”
When it was put to Mrs Morgan that if the NHS retains one nurse then that is not one more nurse but rather a nurse it already has, she said: “Well if that nurse was going to leave the NHS and we’re able to persuade them to stay, but actually what that does is that means the workforce has kept one more person there, and so 50,000 more by 2025.”
Asked about the number of hospitals a Tory government will build, Mr Hancock told PA: “There’s going to be 40 new hospitals over the next decade. That’s our commitment in our manifesto.”
When pressed on whether it was 40 new hospitals in 40 locations, he said: “40 new hospitals, that’s right. It’s a commitment in our manifesto.
“I know some people on that have queried the figure. You can’t query the commitment. It’s there in black and white in the manifesto.
“We will fund and build 40 new hospitals.”
The 40 hospital pledge has come in for criticism after it emerged that while £2.7 billion has been allocated to six hospital trusts for building projects for completion by 2025, the other 34 projects for delivery by 2030 have so far just been promised £100 million of “seed funding”.
Mr Hancock has said the “seed funding” will allow hospital trusts to carry out design and planning work in preparation for the moment funds become available to start construction.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The Conservatives’ claim on nurses is frankly deceitful – the sums simply don’t add up.
“First we had Johnson’s fake 40 new hospitals, now we have his fake 50,000 extra nurses.”
Meanwhile, it emerged that Mr Johnson would call for a Queen’s Speech to take place on December 19 if he remains Prime Minister under plans to bring his Brexit deal back before Christmas.
Downing Street proposed on Monday that the state opening of Parliament would go ahead with “reduced ceremonial elements” if the Tories win a majority in the vote a week earlier.
In a speech in London, Tony Blair said a Labour majority government, as well as a Tory majority government, “pose a risk” to the UK.
The former prime minister stressed that both the Conservatives’ pledge to end the UK’s transition period after Brexit at the end of 2020 with or without a deal and Labour’s spending plans posed a “risk”.