The UK government’s National Health Service reforms came under a concerted attack this week with doctors and nurses joining blue collar health workers in a mass lobby of Parliament.

Sixteen health unions ranging from Unison to the British Medical Association and Royal College of Nursing encouraged their members to join the mass lobby of MPs and peers under the banner NHS Together.

High on their list of concerns are the job losses forced by the financial crisis which has hit many trusts. Unions have seized on calculations by NHS Employers that suggest 20,000 posts have been lost in the NHS since the financial crisis hit a year ago.

But this week ministers, marking the publication of advice for trusts on how they can minimize redundancies, claimed that there have been only 903 compulsory redundancies in the NHS. Most, 736, involved non-clinical staff. The claim came after NHS chief executive David Nicholson appeared to flounder when asked about the issue after he gave a presentation at the prime minister’s monthly press conference recently.

Health minister Lord Warner said: “The figures we have published show the true picture of redundancies in the NHS – just over 900, not the inflated figure so often claimed.”

His comments drew an angry response from the RCN, whose general secretary Beverly Malone said: “We welcome the fact that the government has at last come clean on the serious number of compulsory redundancies in the NHS because of the deficits crisis. However, we are dismayed that ministers failed to include in their published evidence the number of voluntary redundancies and posts deleted by the NHS.”

She said the workforce cuts are hitting patient care and placing additional strain on staff.

A poll commissioned by the Trades Union Congress to coincide with the protest found that nearly half (46%) of those asked feared the reforms will make their local trust worse over the next five years. Nearly 75% were against recent reforms such as increased competition within the service. More than half (52%) believe the NHS has got worse over the last decade, despite Labour’s record investment.

Echoing another recent poll, the TUC’s survey found that these gloomy views came despite people having a very positive personal experience of the NHS – 63% said their own encounter with the service had been good or very good.

But Lord Warner signaled the government’s determination to press on with its NHS reforms with a speech calling on primary care trusts to look to the market to boost the provision of GP care.

Addressing PCT chief executives, he said they should encourage “entrepreneurial” GPs to open new practices under franchising agreements. They should also work with companies and charities to open primary care centres offering GP and other services.

Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the BMA's GPs Committee, reacted coolly to the speech, saying: "We do have some concerns that this is a thinly disguised attempt just to open up general practice to the large commercial providers of healthcare. We know of many instances where good practices are finding it very difficult to get funds to expand both in terms of premises and other resources. They are told there is no funding available. Therefore we would want to ensure that where additional funding is identified it is made available on an equal footing to all. “