NHS crisis: will patients be treated in hospital car parks? Government’s plans to cut NHS backlog explained

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The government has unveiled an emergency recovery plan to boost hospital capacity and combat overcrowding as the NHS crisis continues to escalate.

A&E patients could be treated in hospital car parks under new plans to tackle the crisis in the NHS.

The government has drawn up an emergency recovery plan to combat overcrowding and boost hospital capacity, as the state of the health service continues to shock the nation. Health Secretary Steve Barclay unveiled the plans in the House of Commons on Monday (9 January), admitting that “the experience for some patients and staff” in emergency care had “not been acceptable” in recent weeks.

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Included in the proposals was a budget for hospitals to buy or rent temporary ‘modular units’. It is understood that some of these will be situated in hospital car parks, with the aim of freeing up space in A&E - and ensuring ambulance workers do not have to queue for hours to drop off arrivals.

It comes amid warnings that 500 patients are dying each week as a result of delayed care. Healthcare professionals are also speaking out about critical staff shortages and dangerous waiting times in A&E, while patients are complaining of trouble ordering an ambulance.

So what exactly would temporary ‘modular units’ look like, would they help the situation, and what else has been said about the proposals? Here’s everything we know so far.

A&E patients could be treated in hospital car parks under new plans to tackle the crisis in the NHS. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorldA&E patients could be treated in hospital car parks under new plans to tackle the crisis in the NHS. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld
A&E patients could be treated in hospital car parks under new plans to tackle the crisis in the NHS. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld | Kim Mogg / NationalWorld

Will patients be treated in hospital car parks?

Addressing MPs in the House of Commons, the Health Secretary revealed plans to invest in ‘modular units’ to increase capacity in emergency departments. These will be fitted with additional beds or chairs, where patients can be treated, observed, or wait to be seen.

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Trusts will be given the choice on how to best use these units, but it was indicated that some will be situated “at the front end of a hospital” - or, in other words, in hospital car parks.

Barclay said: “By using modular units, this capacity will be available in weeks, not months, and our £50 million investment will focus on modular support this year. That might be for spaces for short stays post A&E care, where there is no need for a patient to go to a ward for further observation, or for discharge lounges that previously have not been able to take a patients in a bed - many of those are often simply chairs - or for additional capacity alongside the emergency department at the front end of the hospital.”

Health Secretary Steve Barclay unveiled plans to deal with the NHS crisis in the House of Commons on Monday (9 January). Credit: Getty ImagesHealth Secretary Steve Barclay unveiled plans to deal with the NHS crisis in the House of Commons on Monday (9 January). Credit: Getty Images
Health Secretary Steve Barclay unveiled plans to deal with the NHS crisis in the House of Commons on Monday (9 January). Credit: Getty Images | AFP via Getty Images

What else was included in the emergency recovery plan?

Barclay also mentioned that the government would spend up to £200 million securing thousands of extra places in care homes so medically fit patients can be discharged from hospital faster. To further free up space, healthcare professionals will make more use of ‘virtual wards’, which involve treating patients at home but allowing them to return to wards if their condition deteriorates.

Meanwhile, regulators will temporarily reduce inspections so that busy hospital staff are free to focus on patients.

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also did not rule out using retired doctors or student nurses to ease the staff shortages in the NHS. His spokesperson told reporters: “I think it’s important we consider all options and that work has been taking place in advance of this winter. There are obviously significant challenges to that sort of approach and I think we are confident that both the Department of Health and the NHS in England is taking the right steps to do everything possible to mitigate some of these challenges we’re seeing.”

What has the reaction been?

Business Secretary Grant Shapps appeared to support the hospital car park plan when interviewed on LBC on Tuesday (10 January). When asked about patients receiving emergency treatment in temporary ‘modular units’, he said: “I think the most important thing is to deal with these backlogs and the pressures that the NHS is under.

“I’m in favour of the NHS doing whatever it needs to do to clear those backlogs and if that means temporary, modular, whatever, or using clinics close to people or whatever else is required, I mean, for heaven’s sake, let’s get on and do those things.”

While the plans to treat patients in car parks may seem alarming to the public, they will likely not come as a surprise to doctors and nurses. 23-year-old medical student Anna Sigston recently told NationalWorld that hospitals were resorting to all sorts as they struggled with capacity: “A patient being given CPR in the car park because there wasn’t space in the hospital. Bad news being delivered in corridors. Intimate exams being carried out in cupboards. It’s heartbreaking.”

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Ambulances have been queuing outside hospitals as the NHS faces a capacity crisis. Credit: Getty ImagesAmbulances have been queuing outside hospitals as the NHS faces a capacity crisis. Credit: Getty Images
Ambulances have been queuing outside hospitals as the NHS faces a capacity crisis. Credit: Getty Images | Getty Images

Why is the NHS facing a crisis?

Barclay told MPs that the NHS is facing an “extraordinarily difficult time” which has been made worse by recent rises in Covid, flu, scarlet fever and Strep A. There is also an existing backlog from the coronavirus pandemic and various lockdowns, which halted various surgeries and treatment plans. These are now being re-arranged, causing increased pressure.

Some of the strain is also the result of bed-blocking, the Health Secretary added. 13,000 patients currently remain in hospital despite being fit for discharge, due to lack of social care.

But NHS workers say the issues go back further than Covid. The Doctors’ Association UK argues that there needs to be a greater focus on staff retention and recruitment, to help tackle staff shortages, and that more needs to be done to improve staff morale to encourage people into the profession. They, along with other striking healthcare workers, are also calling for greater funding and higher pay.

In his first address of 2023, Prime Minister Sunak vowed to cut NHS waiting lists “so people can get the care they need more quickly”. He said he was aware that the public is “anxious” about what is going on in the NHS - but promised the government had taken “urgent action”.

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