Plans to axe hospital chaplaincy staff to save money will leave bereaved relatives, terminally-ill patients and those recovering from traumatic medical conditions without spiritual support, unions said yesterday.
The union, which is representing the College of Health Care Chaplains, has heavily criticised Worcestershire Acute Hospitals Health Trust's proposals to sack the chaplains at their Worcester and Kidderminster hospitals.
Two Anglican chaplains, three Roman Catholics and another from the Free Church would be sacked under the plans which would leave only one chaplain, based at the trust's third hospital in Redditch, left to cover all three hospitals.
The move would save the trust, which has an underlying budget deficit for the year of £30 million, £100,000.
The chaplains who may be affected have already been told their jobs are at risk as negotiations continue between the trust and Amicus, who are campaigning for the plans to be dropped immediately.
Carol English, the Amicus officer representing the CHCC, believes similar cutbacks could happen across the country despite Government guidelines.
She said: "This is a cruel decision by the trust, not only for our members but to patients and their families seeking the professional support that the chaplaincy team can provide at times of extreme distress.
"We believe that such cutbacks are being replicated across the UK, in defiance of the Department of Health's guidelines on chaplaincy services."
The union's regional officer, Chris Purvis, attended a meeting with the trust representatives yesterday but said that so far the plans were still in place as negotiations continue.
Another meeting is due to take place next week and a third on August 22, he added.
The chief executive of Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, John Rostill, said cuts had to be made in order to fulfil the trust's primary duty of providing high-quality, effective clinical care to its patients.
An underlying deficit for the year of £30 million meant a recovery plan had to be developed and part of the plan was to save £16 million in staff cuts and another £7 million by improving efficiency, Mr Rostill explained.
Although some corporate staff have already been told they are at risk and others have left through voluntary severance, staff levels had to be reduced even further to cut costs, he said.
The three full-time and four part-time chaplains are deemed part of the corporate team and are therefore included in the staff-reduction programme. The current chaplaincy budget runs to £150,000 every year but the cuts would save £100,000 - the equivalent of four nursing staff.
Mr Rostill said: "We know that this action will cause distress. We will continue our discussions with religious leaders to seek to minimise the impact of this decision on patients and staff and work with them to provide alternative support and care for our patients and their families of whatever religious denomination they may be."