The Government has announced an extra £200m worth of funding to boost NHS resilience over winter. However, NHS leaders and trusts are warning that unless ministers focus on ending industrial action, the healthcare system will come under further pressure.
Boosting NHS resilience
The Government has unveiled its plans for sustaining the NHS during winter, its most challenging period. The Department of Health and Social Care announced a £200m boost, along with £40m to bolster social care capacity and improve discharge from hospital. This £40m funding forms part of the £600 million social care winter workforce package, with local authorities in the most challenged integrated care systems now invited to submit proposals.
Health secretary, Steve Barclay, asserts that this plan will help to ease pressures in urgent and emergency care, along with meeting waiting lists targets by ensuring patients are seen as quickly as possible.
The Government asserts that the Urgent and Emergency Care Recovery Plan announced earlier this year, backed by £1 billion to boost capacity in the health system, has made significant progress. The Department of Health argues that compared to July 2022, Category 2 ambulance response times are now 27 minutes faster, there are 2,500 more general and acute beds and 9,700 virtual ward beds available, and there are 1,500 fewer people stuck in hospital when they are medically fit to be discharged. That also comes on top of the Primary Care Recovery Plan which ministers claim is freeing up 15 million GP appointments to help end the 8am rush.
The Government claims that due to flu, Covid and seasonal illnesses, combined with industrial action, it has started planning earlier. However, the NHS is warning that this plan does not go far enough as more appointments and operations will be cancelled in the coming months as prolonged strike action over NHS pay continues. Consultants in England begin a 48-hour walkout next Tuesday, which crosses over with junior doctor colleagues who will strike for 72 hours from Wednesday morning.
Both groups will also walk out together for 72 hours from Monday, 2 October as their pay row with the Government escalates. It is the first time junior doctors and consultants are co-ordinating strike action, which ministers have called “callous and calculated”.
On the strike days which include both junior doctors and consultants, Christmas Day levels of cover will be implemented, causing further disruption. A record 7.6 million people are already on the NHS England waiting list, a figure expected to keep rising while strikes continue.
Covid-19 cases are also on the rise throughout the UK with experts warning that we have entered another wave, putting hospitals under further strain. The number of patients in hospital with Covid doubled between November and December last year.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said: “Trusts are working incredibly hard ahead of what is expected to be another tough winter for the NHS, with industrial action, rising waiting lists and demand on emergency services expected to pile on the pressure.
“Today’s announcement of £200m is of course welcome given the challenges the NHS faces, but urgent clarity is needed over whether this money is intended for specific initiatives or to offer general additional support to health services.
“Trust leaders tell us that the most pressing challenge facing the NHS this winter is now the real prospect of sustained industrial action. They will rightly ask questions about whether enough is being done to resolve wave after wave of highly disruptive strikes.
“The £40m for local authorities to boost social care capacity, reduce admissions and to tackle delayed discharges will similarly be welcomed but the Government must also take a long, hard look at the fundamental long-term challenges facing social care rather than trying to get by through short-term quick fixes.”
NHS waiting lists
Cutting waiting times is one of the government’s top five priorities. However, in the announcement made today, the Government avoids mentioning that NHS England waiting list for routine treatment have hit a record high of 7,680,000. This is the highest number since records began in August 2007.
The Government and NHS England set the ambition of eliminating all waits of more than 18 months by April this year, excluding exceptionally complex cases or patients who choose to wait longer. A total of 389,952 people in England had been waiting more than 52 weeks to start routine hospital treatment at the end of July, up from 383,083 at the end of June.
It was also found last month that 85% of those on waiting lists are awaiting crucial decisions.
Strike action has hit the NHS hard and will continue to – the Government’s refusal to provide a pay offer which coincides with inflation is primarily to blame. As winter looms, consequences worsen.
NHS staff who take industrial action feel they have no other choice as there is no alternative method of pushing the Government into negotiations. The longer this goes on, the weaker the Government appears. It is time our politicians recognise that those who work in a sector with such high societal importance should not be overworked and underpaid.