Theresa May has said Britain’s hospitals are not facing a “humanitarian crisis”, as the British Red Cross has claimed.
The Prime Minister acknowledged the health service was under pressure but rejected the charity’s description of the situation in overstretched NHS hospitals.
Figures show A&E departments shut their doors to patients more than 140 times in December, while a third of NHS trusts in England have issued alerts as they are struggling to cope with demand, according to the Nuffield Trust.
The British Red Cross, which has stepped in to support the health service with patient transportation, said the government should take immediate action to “stabilise” the health service amid overcrowding and lack of resources.
“I don't accept the description the Red Cross has made of this,” Ms May told Sky News.
“There are pressures in the NHS, we see those pressures. We have an ageing population, this brings pressures, particularly in the interface between the health service and social care.
“We have taken some immediate steps in relation to that issue but we are also looking to ensure best practice in the NHS and looking for a long-term solution to what has been a problem that has been ducked by government over the years.”
Her comments come as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was accused of “hiding” from the public eye in what the Society for Acute Medicine has warned could be the worst January the NHS has ever faced.
Mr Hunt has not yet issued a comment on the unfolding health service crisis, in which the Red Cross has been called in to help hospitals free up beds.
“The British Red Cross is on the front line, responding to the humanitarian crisis in our hospital and ambulance services across the country,” said Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson in a statement.
“We call on the UK government to allocate immediate funding to stabilise the current system and set out plans towards creating a sustainable funding settlement for the future.”
But Ms May told the broadcaster funding was at “record levels for the NHS” and praised the efforts of NHS staff over the “difficult” winter period.
“Yes there are huge pressures on the NHS, but first of all we should thank all the dedicated professionals in the NHS who have been working so hard over what is always a difficult period in terms of the number of people using the NHS – the Christmas and New Year period,” she said.
“We asked the NHS a while back to set out what it needed over the next five years in terms of its plan for the future and the funding that it would need. They did that, we gave them that funding, in fact we gave them more funding than they required.
“So funding is now at record levels for the NHS, more money has been going in.”
Education Secretary Justine Greening said it was “not appropriate” to compare pressures facing the NHS to crises she had witnessed in countries such as Syria, Nepal and the Philippines.
She maintained the NHS was better prepared this winter than in previous years and said it was “not unusual” for organisations such as the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance to provide support to hospitals.
“I don't think it's appropriate to describe the challenges that the NHS faces this winter as a humanitarian crisis,” told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“We have put in £400 million of extra funding to particularly help these winter pressures and, indeed, the NHS is better prepared this year than it has been in the past.”
“We are now seeing a meltdown in our NHS that [Jeremy Hunt] is refusing to acknowledge. Patients, the staff and the public deserve better,” shadow health minister Justin Madders told The Independent.
“Jeremy Hunt should urgently come up with a plan and resources to match to end the crisis.”
NHS England disputed the Red Cross’s claims but said demand was at unprecedented levels.
Professor Keith Willet, NHS England’s national director for acute episodes of care, told the BBC that NHS staff were under “a level of pressure we haven’t seen before”.
Ms May did not confirm whether she would discuss the NHS in Parliament but said she would focus on tackling the "huge stigma" around mental health problems in the UK.
She also said a plan for leaving the EU would be set out "in the coming weeks" and said the Government's thinking over Brexit "isn't muddled at all".
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