NHS facing pressure ‘equivalent’ to Covid pandemic as government urged to declare national major incident

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Staff shortages, lack of investment and a backlog of operations are adding to NHS pressures

The NHS is facing pressure “equivalent” to that of the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, a leading health official has warned.

Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, said staff shortages, lack of investment, a worn-out workforce and a backlog of operations are all contributing to the pressure, in addition to a continuation of Covid and flu cases.

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She said: “What we saw in terms of pressure during the pandemic was tens of thousands of people coming through hospital doors with a contagious disease that we didn’t know how to treat effectively.

“We had to give over nearly every hospital bed to Covid patients. There was no or very little elective routine work, it was all given over to supporting and treating Covid patients because there was nothing else that could be done but grapple with this wave of illness coming from a particular cause.

“What we know now, and I think perhaps it’s a more challenging situation, is that we’ve still got that coming through the door but then we’ve also got the legacy of Covid, which is a worn-out workforce, we’ve got even higher levels of staff shortages and vacancies, we’re up to 133,000 across the NHS now. And we’ve got the imperative to try and make some gains on the waiting list, so there’s a real pressure there also to do more of that routine activity.”

The NHS is facing pressure “equivalent” to that of the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, a leading health chief has warned (Composite: Mark Hall)The NHS is facing pressure “equivalent” to that of the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, a leading health chief has warned (Composite: Mark Hall)
The NHS is facing pressure “equivalent” to that of the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, a leading health chief has warned (Composite: Mark Hall) | Mark Hall

Ms Cordery warned that the NHS suffers from a lack of capital investment which makes the health service “much less efficient”, and said it needs to attract and retain staff across all professions, ensuring that workers are adequately paid.

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NHS nurses, ambulance workers and paramedics went on strike over pay and conditions for two days in December, and the British Medical Association is due to ballot junior doctors this month.

She added: “One of the things we have called for, and we are seeing small steps towards this but I think we need even greater commitment to it, is a fully costed, fully funded workforce plan for the NHS so that we work out precisely what’s needed and how we then fulfil that and understand how much it costs, make sure the funding is there for it because that doesn’t exist at the moment.

“Inflation is a reality, demand is a reality, and when you’ve got higher demand, you do need more staff, so it is costing more. We understand those arguments that we are just pouring more and more money into the NHS and what are we seeing at the end of it? Well what we are seeing at the end of it is actually more people being treated than ever before.

“There’s another bit also about how we stem that demand before it gets to the NHS, which is about much more effective investment in public health and in prevention and in those broader services which stop people needing healthcare.

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“If I did have a silver bullet that might solve a significant chunk of this it would be the investment across local government as well as the NHS and the investment in social care, in public health and in prevention because it’s the denudation of those services which has had a massive impact on the NHS.”

‘Government should declare national NHS major incident’

Dr Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine (SAM), has said the government should declare a national NHS major incident to rescue the healthcare system from the current crisis.

It would mean all four UK nations would coordinate their response and allocate resources to help meet the overwhelming demand for care that is enveloping many hospitals around the country.

He said: “The current situation in urgent and emergency care is shocking. It is in a critical state for patients and it is extremely difficult for healthcare staff who are unable to deliver the care they want to.

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“Political leaders across the UK need to listen, meet urgently and accept the need to declare a national NHS major incident. The outcome must be a four-nation emergency strategy which results in short-term stabilisation, medium-term improvement and long-term growth – the grave situation we are in means it will be a long journey. Sustainable workforce and capacity plans are required urgently to boost morale among staff and patients – as we have long called for – and we now need to see action.”

The warning comes after the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine on New Year’s Day said between 300 and 500 people are dying each week because of delays to emergency care.

More than a dozen NHS Trusts and ambulance services declared critical incidents over the festive period, with some critically-ill patients reportedly waiting hours for a bed.

Ambulances have been left unable to pick up those in need because they have been stuck waiting to hand over patients to hospital, and last week one in five ambulance patients in England waited more than an hour to be handed over to A&E teams.

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Dr Adrian Boyle told Times Radio: “We went into this December with the worst-ever performance against our target and the highest-ever occupancy levels in hospital.

“We don’t know about the waiting time figures because they don’t come out for a couple of weeks; I’d be amazed if they’re not the worst ever that we’ve seen over this December.

“What we’re seeing now in terms of these long waits is being associated with increased mortality, and we think somewhere between 300-500 people are dying as a consequence of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care each week. We need to actually get a grip of this.”

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