The Health Secretary admitted a £1.4bn plan to provide 21,000 more nurses and 24 hour services by 2021 would be “challenging”.
But the Royal College of Nursing said previous cuts meant the Government’s sums “don’t add up”.
“If these nurses were going to be ready in time, they would be starting training next month,” the College’s Janet Davies said.
And speaking on BBC Radio 4 Today on Monday, Hunt hit back by saying: “Look at our track record.”
His comments sparked incredulity online.
‘Policies don’t add up’
Janet Davies, chief executive of the RCN, poured cold water on the plan, saying: “The Government’s policies appear not to add up.
“If these nurses were going to be ready in time, they would be starting training next month.
“But we have seen that the withdrawal of the bursary has led to a sharp fall in university applications and we are yet to see funding for additional places.
“There is already a dangerous lack of workforce planning and accountability and this report is unable to provide detail on how the ambitions will be met.
“It is clear the Government will need to work hard just to get back to the number of specialist staff working in mental health services in 2010.
“Under this Government, there are 5,000 fewer mental health nurses and that goes some way to explaining why patients are being failed.
“The NHS needs to see hard cash to deliver any plans.”
Hunt told Today that improving mental health provision was not just simply about investing more money.
He said: “In the past we have made the mistake too often of saying that the way you solve these problems is with a big injection of money.
“Health Secretaries of different parties and I held my hand up to this as well have thought that this is the solution.
“The truth is you can put the money in but if you haven’t got the doctors and nurses to employ with that money, you’re not actually going to improve the care for patients.
“We need 21,000 more posts in the NHS over the next four years.
“These are big ambitions and will be challenging to meet.”
However the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has questioned whether enough people could be trained in such time, and if there were the resources to do so.
Hunt responded there were 8,000 mental health nurses in training at the moment.
“We need more and we need to plan for it,” he said.
“If we want to transform mental health provision, we have to be strategic about this.”
“The work of mental health nurses is incredibly challenging.”
The NHS is the best healthcare system in the world, he added.
“We are putting in as much money as we can possibly afford to,” he said.
We have to be strategic about thisJeremy Hunt
Professor Wendy Burn, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which helped devise the plan, said: “As medically trained doctors, psychiatrists are vital to the treatment of mental illness.
“You would expect to see a consultant if you had cancer and the same applies for mental health.
“The 570 extra consultants promised in this strategy will be crucial to delivering the high-quality, robust mental health services of the future.”
The move will see 2,000 additional nurses, consultants and therapist posts created in child and adolescent mental health services.
And 2,900 additional therapists will help adult talking services, with 4,800 extra nurses and therapists in crisis care settings, the Press Association reported.
Retaining staff and encouraging some of the 4,000 psychiatrists and 30,000 trained mental health nurses not substantively employed by the NHS to return to the profession will form a major part of the drive.
Labour’s shadow minister for mental health Barbara Keeley said: “The workforce plan provides no real answers on how these new posts will be funded or how recruitment issues will be overcome.
“And it offers little hope to those working in the sector faced with mounting workloads, low pay and poor morale.
“Time and again the Tories have been warned that severe staffing shortages are affecting patient care.
“Only this month the Care Quality Commission highlighted staffing levels, in particular the cuts to mental health nurses, as a contributing factor to 40% of mental health services now failing on safety grounds.”