NHS crisis: extra £200 million to buy care home beds aims to free up space in hospitals

The extra cash aims to ease the strain on hospital wards, A&E departments and ambulances

An extra £200 million is being provided to the NHS to buy thousands of care home beds as part of the government’s plans to ease pressure on hospitals.

The move aims to speed up the discharge of hospital patients so that people can be admitted more quickly from A&E to hospital wards.

It follows a meeting between the Prime Minister, Health Secretary and NHS leaders on Saturday (7 January) to address the strain facing the NHS this winter. A&E units are struggling to keep up with demand and dozens of trusts and ambulance services have declared critical incidents.

Some of the strain on the health service comes from around 13,000 people occupying hospital beds in England – despite being medically fit to discharge – because they need further care before going home. The situation has been exacerbated by high levels of flu and rising Covid cases this winter.

The wave of strikes is also adding to the pressure, with nurses set to walk out on another two days this month unless an agreement on pay is reached, which looks unlikely with Health Secretary Steve Barclay unwilling to negotiate on this year’s pay settlement. He will host union leaders for talks on Monday (9 January).

The extra cash aims to ease the strain on hospital wards (Photo: Getty Images)

More beds on hospital wards

Barclay is committing funding to immediately buy short-term placements in community settings, including care homes, to fund stays of up to four weeks per patient until the end of March. He hopes thousands of extra patients will be discharged in the coming weeks, freeing up much-needed hospital beds. If successful, this will reduce pressure on A&Es and speed up ambulance handovers by allowing patients to be admitted to wards from emergency departments more quickly.

Rather than new beds funding coming from the Treasury, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said up to £200 million will be redirected from existing health budgets to fund the scheme.

An additional £50 million is set to be announced by Barclay on Monday (9 January) to expand hospital discharge lounges and ambulance hubs to help tackle queues of paramedics waiting to hand over patients.

Barclay said: “The NHS is under enormous pressure from Covid and flu, and on top of tackling the backlog caused by the pandemic, Strep A and upcoming strikes, this winter poses an extreme challenge.

“I am taking urgent action to reduce pressure on the health service, including investing an additional £200 million to enable the NHS to immediately buy up beds in the community to safely discharge thousands of patients from hospital and free up hospital capacity, on top of the £500 million we’ve already invested to tackle this issue.”

Barclay is due to give more details in the House of Commons on Monday and will also detail other measures aimed at addressing the pressures facing the NHS this winter. This will include six areas that will trial longer-term solutions to free up hospital beds and ensure patients get the care they need.

‘Another sticking plaster’

Labour has slammed the plans as “yet another sticking plaster” that fails to tackle the root cause of “buckling” health and care services, and said it should instead address the problem by recruiting and retaining more carers.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “This is yet another sticking plaster to cover the fact that under the Conservatives, our health and care services are buckling.

The Tories’ failure to fix social care means thousands of patients who are medically fit to be discharged remain stranded, leaving hospitals gridlocked. It is worse for patients and more expensive for the taxpayer.”

Meanwhile the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which is undertaking strike action over pay, argued the strategy “won’t make a difference” without halting the “exodus” of staff. RCN England director Patricia Marquis said the “aspiration in this policy is right”, “but the lack of beds in social care isn’t really the problem, it’s the lack of staff”.

She added: “Without investment in staff, providing more facilities – whether it’s more beds in care homes or hospitals – won’t make a difference. Nursing staff are leaving the profession in their droves and pay is a key factor. To halt the exodus, ministers must pay them fairly.”