Ministers warned NHS is as stretched now as at the height of pandemic

Hospitals could face their toughest challenge yet as health service’s budget for the rest of the year has yet to be agreed

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 27 July 2021 00:01 BST
<p>Hospitals are facing mounting pressures</p>

Hospitals are facing mounting pressures

Ministers have been warned that the health service is under similar levels of pressure as at the height of the pandemic in January, as rising Covid-19 admissions take their toll.

NHS leaders say a combination of pressures in the NHS have resulted in hospitals being short of thousands of beds, with record demand in A&E departments, and the number of Covid patients in hospital rising to more than 5,000 in England for the first time since March.

NHS Providers, which represents hospital and ambulance trusts, say the health service is also facing unprecedented uncertainty over funding, with its budget still not finalised for the second half of the year and concerns growing that the government may start to restrict spending on health as the Covid crisis recedes.

The fall in coronavirus infections nationally has sparked optimism that the pandemic’s summer wave has peaked, but the numbers in hospital across the UK are still rising, adding pressure on hospitals as they try to cover a backlog of cancelled surgery. NHS bosses warned last week that the beginning of the school summer holidays would bring a “perfect storm” in pressure on hospitals, while ambulances have been forced this month to wait outside A&E departments overnight, 999 calls have been left unanswered for up to 10 minutes, and operations have been cancelled in Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and London.

On Monday, Downing Street said the UK was "not out of the woods yet" and the prime minister’s official spokesperson said to “expect to see a rise in case numbers” given the lifting of restrictions on 19 July.

Experts have suggested the fall in cases could be down to the hot weather, which has seen more people meet outside, or the end of gatherings for the Euro 2020 football tournament.

In a letter to the prime minister, the chancellor, the health secretary and the chief executive of NHS England, NHS Providers said the combination of pressures was now as bad as at the height of the January wave of the pandemic.

Writing for The Independent today, the membership organisation’s chief executive, Chris Hopson, said: “It is the task of NHS leaders to juggle these competing priorities and provide the best possible care to the greatest number of people.

“But they need maximum support from government. And they’re worried that, as the NHS budget is set for the second half of the year, that support won’t arrive. The government is stressing the need to restore public finances. But the NHS can’t meet the pressures it faces without the right funding.”

In March, with just 13 days to go before the end of the financial year, ministers agreed a budget for the NHS to the end of September. The government has yet to reveal the budget for October to March.

NHS Providers said as many as 15,000 of the usual beds in hospitals had been given up to cope with the Covid infection risks and to keep patients distanced from each other.

It said the government must ensure the NHS has enough cash to continue funding new discharge arrangements that mean patients leave hospital sooner, freeing up beds. The health service also needs an increase in funding to cover the backlog of 5.3 million waiting patients.

NHS Providers said hospitals also need urgent cash to expand emergency department capacity, crisis health services, and ambulance and community capacity ahead of winter. In addition, ministers must fully fund the recent 3 per cent pay-rise offer for staff, otherwise trusts may have to cut other budgets.

Mr Hopson said: “Many NHS chief executives believe the next phase of our fight against Covid-19 is likely to be the hardest yet given the scale and breadth of pressures they face. They are clear that, now more than ever, the NHS must get the funding it needs to win that fight.

“Trust leaders have strongly welcomed the financial support they’ve received over the last 18 months. It’s been crucial to coping with Covid-19.

“But the government is currently stressing the need to repair the public finances and some are arguing that NHS funding can ‘return to normal’.”

He said hospital bosses were “seriously worried” that ministers would not provide the cash the NHS needs.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The NHS is in summer crisis with vital operations cancelled, ambulance trusts overstretched and Covid patients filling up beds.

“And this is before one of the most anticipated difficult winters in living memory hits.

“Given the scale of pressure, it is negligent of Sajid Javid to have failed to agree funding beyond September. Hospitals need to plan. Instead we have a summer of chaos and a distracting top down NHS reorganisation.”

A government spokesperson said: “We gave the NHS a historic settlement in 2018, which will see its budget rise to £33.9bn by 2023-24 [in cash terms], and we have provided an extra £92bn to support health and care services throughout the pandemic.

“We will make sure the NHS and everyone working in it has everything they need to continue providing excellent care to the public, throughout the pandemic and beyond.”

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