He accused the RCN – staging its annual conference in Liverpool – of allowing its trade union role to trump its duty as a Royal College to raise standards within the profession.
His comments came after RCN president Andrea Spyropoulos condemned plans to require new recruits to work for 12 months as a healthcare assistant before beginning their nursing training as a “really stupid idea”.
Mr Hunt however insisted that many nurses supported the plan, while pointing out that the RCN had come in for criticism in the Francis report into Mid Staffs.
“I think the Royal College of Nurses has to be very, very careful. They missed what happened at Mid Staffs,” he told Sky News.
“The Francis report levelled some very serious criticisms at that. It said that they basically allowed their trade union responsibilities to trump their responsibilities as a Royal College to raise professional standards.
“They have a conflict of interests and I think that, before they start criticising the Government for accepting recommendations that are going to improve compassionate care throughout the NHS, they need to answer those very, very serious criticisms themselves.
“What nurses on the front line are saying, a lot of them, particularly the older nurses, is that this was part of nursing training. Why would you want to become a nurse if you were unwilling to spend time washing patients, feeding patients, doing that really vital experience on the front line?”