Chief executives' views mirror closely what Royal College of Nursing and Unison members are saying about the NHS reforms, say the unions' leaders.

RCN policy director Howard Catton said: 'These very senior voices saying the same thing we have been saying for some time. Chief executives are acknowledging that jobs and services are under pressure.'

Unison head of health Karen Jennings agreed, adding: 'This is not a group that normally expresses itself differently from the government. But these reforms do not belong to anybody except a small group of people at the Department of Health.'

Both cited the 72 per cent of chief executives who believed the NHS plan achieved a level of consensus totally lacking in current reforms.

Mr Catton said: 'In 2000 we rallied round the plan. This Saturday [the TUC's NHS Together day of action] will see national demonstrations showing serious levels of concern. Politicians have to ask themselves how they lost that support.'

Ms Jennings added: '[Former health secretary] Alan Milburn built a consensus around the NHS plan and that's why he was so popular. He engaged, was prepared to listen and there was a vision. There was a time I could have stood on a platform and had a shared vision with this Labour government, not now.'

Mr Catton highlighted the fact that 87 per cent of chief executives said the government was overly impressed by the private sector and 91 per cent did not think there was a level playing field.

'The RCN has not taken an ideological position on this and has always been concerned that the best care for patients is provided at the best value. We are now in the position where people wonder if the tests have been applied and chief executives are saying the NHS may be the best provider.'