England’s NHS and care services face a “tsunami of unmet need”, the health watchdog has warned, despite ministers insisting that hospitals are coping with the huge surge in demand.
The alarm was raised as the number of daily coronavirus infections hit 50,000 for the first time since the end of lockdown and fears the NHS is heading into a serious winter crisis.
The Care Quality Commission’s chief executive, Ian Trenholm, said NHS and care staff “cannot be expected to work any harder than they already are if we’re to get safely through this winter”.
“What we’re seeing is many services are at capacity, and in many cases beyond capacity, and problems that traditionally could have been diverted can no longer be diverted,” he said.
Organisations needed to come together and work differently, he warned: “If these things don't happen there is the genuine risk of a tsunami of unmet need with many people not getting the care that they so desperately need this winter.”
The CQC’s stark picture stands in contrast to assurances from the government that the system can cope.
Health secretary Sajid Javid and health minister Edward Argar have both dismissed concerns the NHS is facing unsustainable pressure – “plan B” of Covid measures will only be enacted after this point – despite ambulances queueing outside hospitals and some patients waiting almost 50 hours for a bed.
The regulator said it had “serious concerns” about some areas of emergency care in England, including ambulance handover delays at hospitals that put “the safety of patients at risk”.
The CQC’s chief inspector of hospitals, Professor Ted Baker said hospitals and ambulances were facing a “tough winter” describing long waits in A&E as “unacceptable.”
“As the pressures on the system build, more problems like that are going to develop,” he added.
“I think the levels of pressure at the moment are very intense and I think we are very concerned going into winter that they may get worse, which will create extra problems for the system in responding to that.”
Mr Baker said staff were exhausted, with high levels of burnout.
The CQC said staffing pressures were being felt across the country and it warned of a seriously deteriorating picture in social care, where vacancy rates have soared from 6 per cent in April, to 10 per cent this September.
In some parts of the country, care companies are closing their doors due to nursing shortages leaving patients to find new homes, while some are stuck in hospitals unable to leave because care services are not available.
The annual state of care report found social care staff were leaving for better paid jobs in the hospitality and tourism industry. The sector has been hit by the government demanding mandatory vaccinations that may have driven some staff to leave, adding to the 120,000 vacancies.
The report found more than half of A&Es and urgent care services were rated as “requires improvement” or were “inadequate”.
While 95 per cent of GP practices were rated as good or outstanding, the watchdog said it did have concerns over patient access. GPs have been criticised for not providing more face to face appointments.
It said the move to online or digital consultations “did not benefit everyone and some struggled to get the appointments they wanted”.
The CQC said there are “some areas of concern” regarding GP staffing numbers, adding that the number of qualified permanent GPs has been falling, with figures in June 2021 nearly 3 per cent lower than they were in June 2017.
Dr Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of the Health Foundation, said: “Today’s CQC report is further proof of the urgent need to invest in the NHS and social care workforce – or see many more people go without the care and treatment they need as services struggle to meet demand and address the backlogs created by the pandemic.”
Age UK said older people are getting stuck in hospital when they are fit to be discharged, because there is not enough care to support them at home.
This is “deeply ominous” for the NHS and “miserable and counterproductive” for the patients concerned, charity director Caroline Abrahams said.
On Thursday night, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced a £162m fund to help recruit thousands of new carers.
The new fund will be available to local councils to help recruit staff and support existing workers to stay in their jobs. The DHSC said the money would be available until the end of March 2022.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said: “I want to thank care workers for their commitment and tireless efforts throughout the Covid-19 pandemic – we owe them a debt of gratitude which I am determined to repay through ambitious, sustainable social care reform that prioritises their skills and wellbeing.”