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Pressure mounts on Government over NHS crisis

Downing Street said the Government has been ‘up front’ with the public about the pressure the NHS faces this winter.

03 January 2023

Pressure is mounting on the Government over the “intolerable and unbearable” strain facing the NHS – with experts saying it is wrong to blame the pandemic for the current crisis.

Health leaders hit back at Downing Street suggestions the pandemic is a leading cause of the current situation, saying the problems are long standing and deep rooted.

On Tuesday, Downing Street said the Government has been “up front” with the public about the pressure the NHS faces this winter.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman acknowledged the current pressure on the health service is an “unprecedented challenge”.

He added: “I think we have been up front with the public long in advance of this winter that, because of the pandemic and the pressures it’s placed (on) the backlog of cases, that this would be an extremely challenging winter, and that is what we are seeing.”

He told reporters the pandemic is among the biggest causes of the current pressures on the NHS, but also pointed to delayed discharges of medically fit people as a reason.

Asked if Prime Minister Rishi Sunak thinks the NHS is in crisis, his spokesman said: “This is certainly an unprecedented challenge for the NHS brought about, as I say, by a number of factors.”

Senior doctors say the NHS is on a knife edge, with many A&Es struggling to keep up with demand and trusts and ambulance services declaring critical incidents.

Labour has criticised the Government’s management of the health service, while the Liberal Democrats have called for Parliament to be recalled early.

HEALTH Delays
(PA Graphics)

In comments to the PA news agency on Tuesday, Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said it is “disingenuous to blame the current situation on the pandemic”.

He added: “It is beyond doubt that Covid made a bad situation worse but the structural problems were there long before.

“Emergency care performance has been deteriorating for nearly a decade which is a consequence of wider staffing issues within the NHS, lack of beds and capacity and lack of social care – all problems which are due to under-resourcing.

“But this is fixable; we faced similar problems in the 1990s but only saw conditions improve once there was a political will to make them improve. We hope the current situation is acted upon in a similar manner.”

Dr Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, told PA: “Whilst the Government was ‘up front’ that the NHS was heading towards a winter of ‘unprecedented challenge’, the reality has been more intolerable and unbearable for staff and patients than envisaged.

“Whilst the twindemic of flu and Covid-19 are contributors, the fundamental problem remains a significant shortage of workforce leading to woefully inadequate inpatient bed and social care capacity. Current levels of staff burn out and poor morale markedly exacerbate this issue.

HEALTH Flu
(PA Graphics)

“The shocking NHS acute care situation needs emergency action. There needs to be a greater recognition and acceptance of the current situation by political leaders. This requires a four-nation approach.

“Clear and regular communication, an urgent workforce plan and engendering a belief in patients and staff that the situation can improve are essential in the short term.”

Earlier, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS organisations, said the situation in the health service is “very difficult” as it grapples with too few staff and high demand exacerbated by flu and Covid.

He told BBC Breakfast: “There’s no doubt the situation is very difficult – that’s why many trusts have declared critical incidents.

“We are not able to provide the level of service we want to provide…

“The simple reality here is that the health service is caught between the fact that it has limited capacity, particularly when it comes to workforce – 130,000 vacancies – and a level of demand that it is difficult to meet in ordinary times.

HEALTH Delays
(PA Graphics)

“When you add in flu and Covid, which doesn’t just affect patients but also means many staff are off ill, that’s when you get to this very difficult situation we’re in.”

Asked if cases of flu and Covid have peaked, Mr Taylor said: “I think it’s very difficult to be clear. I don’t think the statistics would give us reason to feel that we have peaked – January is normally the hardest month for the health service.

“So I think the one thing that we can say is that it’s going to carry on being tough, and that’s why it’s important to be clear about the situation and it’s important to have clear messages to the public.

“But also… it’s really important that, as ministers return to their desks, that they consider ways of reopening negotiations with the trade unions because four days of strikes on top of the situation we’re in now is the last thing we need.”

Ambulance staff are set to walk out on January 11 and 23 in a row over pay, while nursing staff will strike on January 18 and 19.

Mr Taylor said that, over the longer term, the NHS needs “sustained investment”, adding: “The Prime Minister has talked about the health service as a priority this year, and I think on one hand we’ve got to find ways of getting through this winter, but on the other hand we’ve got to commit to doing whatever we need to do to ensure that we enter next winter in a less fragile state.”

Elsewhere, Sally Warren, director of policy at the King’s Fund think tank, said tens of thousands of people are waiting for social care assessments, which has an impact on hospitals.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme “while they’re waiting, their condition might deteriorate and they may end up in the NHS system, be that with their GP, with NHS 111 or at the hospital front door”.

Richard Webber, spokesman for the College of Paramedics, said hospitals are “full of patients who should be elsewhere”, with many hospitals having 100 or 200 patients who should not be there due to being medically fit.

“They should be elsewhere being looked after in social care; they can’t be discharged, which means that the patients in the emergency department can’t be admitted to hospital,” he said.

It comes as NHS leaders in London said the London Ambulance Service will only wait 45 minutes to handover patients to A&E staff at the capital’s hospitals.

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