A nursing boss last night attacked claims by the Health Secretary that the NHS was enjoying its "best year ever" as it was revealed that there are no jobs for 4,000 newly qualified nurses in the region.

Ann Leedham Smith, director of the Royal College of Nursing for the Midlands, said Patricia Hewitt's comments ignored growing hospital debt and redundancies.

She said student nurses who qualified this summer would be "lost forever" following job freezes at many hospitals in the region.

Mrs Leedham Smith said: "I do not think she's hearing what we are saying.

"She cannot deny there are nurses being made redundant and that there are deficits. If this carries on, the health service will be in bad shape.

"As far as we know, out of 4,000 nurses not one will get a job."

Mrs Leedham Smith was speaking after the Health Secretary said the NHS had coped better than ever with the cold winter and that waiting times had fallen to their lowest ever.

Mrs Leedham Smith said patient care would suffer if health authorities continued to cut staff to balance the books.

She said: "We need 30,000 nurses to qualify every year to maintain a high standard of care; if that doesn't happen we'll have a similar situation to 1997 where this figure was 9,000. That would be a disaster.

"I do not deny the health service is much better than it was, however because this Government is obsessed with reforms, we have lost a lot of jobs. I do not deny there have been problems but what they are doing now is unpicking all the good work they have been doing.

"We will start to see units being closed; what we are saying is 'stop all the reforms, stop being short-term in your approach and reassess everything'. From Stoke to Worcester we have hospitals in debt. You can't tackle debt by reducing staff."

NHS trusts in the Midlands face debts of #85m. So far 700 nurses have lost their jobs.

Many of the student nurses in the region joined training schemes following the Government's #3.4 billion cash injection to boost recruitment in 2003. But with more competition for fewer positions, up to 60 Midland nurses have been applying for the same job.