The Trades Union Congress issued a ritual denunciation of the private finance initiative last week at the end of a low-key congress overshadowed by the fuel crisis.

The health debate was particularly badly hit by the blockade, with just 40 minutes devoted to health on the final day of the Glasgow congress and only 20 minutes found to debate issues such as the NHS plan.

Bill Stewart of the Association of University Teachers warned there was an 'inconsistency' in the government's policies.

On the one hand, he said, it was trying to increase the number of doctors and nurses. But on the other, teaching hospitals and universities were facing budget deficits and some were proposing job losses as a result.

'Experienced staff are being persuaded to take early retirement simply to balance the books while at the same time there are growing numbers of students and therefore greater demands on teaching, 'he said.

At the end of the debate, the congress supported a composite motion calling for a moratorium on further closures and reductions in teaching hospitals.

The motion also called attention to 'dangerously low staffing levels' in the NHS and demanded further expansion in the number of hospitals and NHS equipment. But it opposed the use of PFI.

Anne Picking from Unison said: 'A major programme of investment in new hospitals and equipment is welcome. But Unison is opposed to the continued use of PFI to provide these facilities.

'Let's modernise the NHS, not privatise it. '

The motion debated also expressed concern that the government's NHS plan envisaged an expansion of PFI and greater use of the private sector.

Despite this, unions 'broadly welcomed' the government's proposals for the future of the NHS.

Heather Ballard, professional officer with the Community and District Nursing Association, said: 'For too long the NHS has been seen as a National Hospital Service rather than as a National Health Service. '

An expansion of community nursing services would offer a range of solutions to current problems that were affordable and 'patient-centred', she said.

The health debate was held on the fourth day of the congress, after debates on Europe, the international perspective and how the TUC is organised.

The blockade 20 miles away at Grangemouth oil refinery was not discussed, but the TUC did find time to debate America's blockade of Cuba just before turning its attention to health.