Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to "get rid of a whole load of bureaucracy that stops nurses from doing what they do best," in order to ensure that every NHS patient is cared for with compassion and dignity in a clean environment.
"We know the vast majority of patients are very happy with the care provided by the NHS," he said, speaking while visiting hospitals in Northwest England. "But I also know we've got a real problem in some of our hospitals with patients not getting the food and drink they need or being treated with the respect they deserve. The Care Quality Commission found one in five hospitals wanting. I am absolutely appalled by this. And we are going to put it right."
As well as cutting back on bureaucracy to allow nurses to concentrate on "patients not paperwork," Mr Cameron pledged to introduce regular nursing rounds and leadership on hospital wards, with a new Nursing Quality Forum of front-line nurses and nursing leaders providing authority figures on the wards. There will also be new patient-led ward inspections, while patients, carers and staff will be asked if they would recommend their hospital – the findings of both these last two initiatives will be published.
"We've talked a lot in the last 18 months about getting the right structures in place to secure the long-term future of the NHS, but we can't just sit around waiting until the structural changes take effect," said Mr Cameron. "There's something really fundamental that needs to be put right fast. We need an NHS which ensures that every patient is cared for with compassion and dignity in a clean environment."
"We need to focus on nurses and the care they deliver. Somewhere in the last decade, the health system has conspired to undermine one of this country's greatest professions," the Prime Minister went on. But, he added, it is not one problem in particular - it is stifling bureaucracy, the lack of consequence for failing to treat people with dignity - and "even at times, as we saw with Mid-Staffordshire, the pursuit of cost-cutting or management targets without sufficient regard for quality of care."
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has welcomed the Prime Minister's pledges, pointing out that a recent survey found that UK nurses spend over a million hours a week on paperwork, which is time taken away from giving patients the best possible care.
RCN chief executive Dr Peter Carter also applauded Mr Cameron's commitment to empowering ward sisters who, he said, can provide expert leadership in the team and "need to be able to call the shots and supervise and develop the wider workforce."
"Having the right number of staff on a ward with the right mix of skills can make all the difference in giving patients the care and attention they need - and we know that issues such as falls, errors and patient outcomes are affected very directly," said Dr Carter.
The NHS Confederation also said that Mr Cameron was "absolutely right to highlight an issue that is central to public confidence in the NHS" and that he had offered "a good start with some positive steps forward."
But he "must avoid the search for a silver bullet that resonates with the public but does not actually get to the fundamental problem," warned Jo Webber, the Confederation's deputy director of policy.
"The really knotty ingrained and complex issues" need to be addressed, she said. "The fact is that the NHS is having to cope with a significant increase in older patients and people with dementia, which means more intensive and specialist care is needed throughout many hospitals. The answers lie in a pretty radical shift in the way we think about care. We have got to get to the culture on some wards, the skills of our staff, the prevention of unnecessary hospital admissions and the safe discharge of people into the community."
Labour's Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham responded to the Prime Minister's statements by commenting that "people have learnt from bitter experience to take David Cameron's pronouncements on the NHS with no more than a pinch of salt."
"This is the man who promised no top-down reorganisation of the NHS but then brought forward the biggest in its history. This is the man who is wasting £3.45 billion on back-office restructuring whilst axing 48,000 nursing posts," said Mr Burham, adding: "if David Cameron really wants to help nurses focus on patient care, he should listen to what they are saying and drop his unnecessary health bill."