NHS crisis: Sunak hails ‘highly valuable’ emergency talks at No 10 in bid to ease winter care crisis

Sunak has been warned that the rare weekend meeting is unlikely to reverse the NHS’ fortunes

The Prime Minister has hailed “highly valuable” emergency talks with NHS and care leaders held at Downing Street in a bid to reverse Britain’s winter healthcare crisis.

In a sign of the scale of the problems facing the NHS, Rishi Sunak will spend Saturday focusing on how to ease the pressure on frontline services. But Sunak has been warned that the rare weekend meeting is unlikely to reverse the NHS’ fortunes, which have been blamed on “years of inaction”.

Senior doctors say the NHS is on a knife edge, with many A&E units struggling to keep up with demand and trusts and ambulance services declaring critical incidents. Discharge rates fell to a new low in England last week, with only a third of those patients ready to be released from hospital actually leaving.

Sunak, during a visit to a school on Friday (6 January), said he recognised that the NHS was “under enormous pressure”. Here is all you need to know:

Who attended the emergency meeting?

No 10’s NHS Recovery Forum saw the Prime Minister hold talks with health experts about how to improve performance. Health Secretary Steve Barclay, Treasury minister John Glen, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden and the chief executive officer of NHS England Amanda Pritchard are also set to attend.

The focus was on four crucial issues: social care and delayed discharge, urgent and emergency care, elective care, and primary care. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said there were “no silver bullets” to solving the crisis currently being experienced at hospitals and other care centres.

“This crisis has been a decade or more in the making and we are now paying the high price for years of inaction and managed decline,” said Mr Taylor. “Patients are experiencing delays that we haven’t seen for years.

“High levels of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and rising Covid levels are exacerbating the problem but the cause is decades of under-investment in staffing, capital and the lack of a long-term solution to the capacity-crunch facing social care. None of these problems can be solved tomorrow.”

Rishi Sunak announced the plans on Thursday, January 5. Image: Steffan Rousseau/Pool/AFP

What was the reaction after the NHS forum?

Rishi Sunak found his emergency talks with health leaders “highly valuable” as he seeks to fix the winter crisis in the NHS, Downing Street said.

A Government spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister expressed his deep gratitude to the health and social care experts who attended today’s forum – and to the wider workforce they represent for all their hard work and dedication especially during the pandemic. He and health ministers found today’s discussions highly valuable for sharing ideas and best practices that could be spread nationwide to improve care for patients throughout the country.

“The Prime Minister has made it one of his top five priorities to reduce NHS waiting lists so that people get care more quickly – and the Government is investing a record amount in the health service, including in recruiting a record number of doctors and nurses. Next steps will be set out in due course.”

Leaving the NHS recovery forum, consultant physician James Dunbar told reporters in Downing Street: “I’m confident that action will be taken. These are difficult problems to fix, though, so I think it’s unlikely we’ll have it sorted by the end of this winter.”

He said the main problem the health service is facing is that the front of hospitals are “overwhelmed”. Asked if the meeting has helped to address that issue, Dr Dunbar said “a lot of” senior clinical leaders taking part were “saying the same thing”. “The Prime Minister seemed to understand that,” he added.

Jay Patel, executive director of Day Lewis pharmacy group, said community pharmacies could ease pressure in the NHS. Outside Downing Street on Saturday, before entering for the NHS recovery forum, he told PA news agency: “I’m hoping that we can look for high impact and quick interventions so that community pharmacy can play a role in alleviating the current pressures.”

Asked what pharmacies could do, he said: “At the moment there is a massive surge in Strep A. With the right protocols, we could test and treat Strep A. These aren’t difficult things to do. It is a case of training a professional for a few hours and having access to the relevant test kits.”

Mr Patel also told PA that pharmacies could alleviate GPs’ workloads. “If we have better control of our repeat prescriptions, we could take the pressure off GPs,” he added.

How have opposition parties reacted?

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting branded the meeting a “talking shop”. The senior Labour figure said: “After 13 years of mismanaging the NHS, this is the equivalent of the arsonists convening a forum with the fire brigade to put out the inferno they started. Patients deserve more than a talking shop.

“Clinical leaders and health experts have been sounding the alarm for months about the crisis the NHS is facing, so why has it taken so long for Rishi Sunak and Steve Barclay to decide to listen to them?” Streeting said the £500 million for delayed discharges promised by the Government is “yet to reach the front line and is now too late to make a difference this winter”.

NHS Confederation chief Mr Taylor, a former Labour and Tony Blair aide, agreed with the criticism, saying the investment to improve discharge rates came “too late to have maximum impact this winter”. He added: “Indeed, some local systems are still awaiting their allocation.

“Any similar funding next year must be provided four to six months in advance so it can genuinely ease winter pressures.”

PM told to “grasp the nettle and negotiate with nurses”

On Monday, Mr Barclay will meet with union leaders to discuss NHS pay for the next financial year. However, Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen has told the Prime Minister to “grasp the nettle and negotiate with nurses” over the current settlement to prevent planned strikes.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ll, of course, go to the meeting and make the case for nursing in all forums, but it’s sadly not what’s going to prevent strike action that’s planned for 10 days’ time. I have put out an olive branch to get us to the table, I’m asking the Prime Minister now to meet the RCN halfway. The ball is firmly in the Prime Minister’s court.”

A Department of Health and Social Care source said the Health Secretary plans to host an “honest and constructive conversation about what is affordable for NHS pay in the coming year”.