NHS leaders call for a new deal to protect NHS workers and help recover patient services: A realistic and steady approach is needed to tackle the ‘colossal’ NHS treatment backlog if health and care staff are to be protected from burning out.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, leaders from all parts of the NHS are calling for a period of ‘recuperation’ for staff after the extreme and sustained pressures of the pandemic. While there is commitment to resume elective and other services that have been disrupted, NHS leaders want staff to be able to take time off to recover and for them to receive ongoing mental health support.
Organised by the NHS Confederation, the letter warns that although cases of coronavirus are continuing to drop nationally, as are the numbers of patients in hospital with the virus, they are still very high and are placing significant strain on patient services and staff.
That is why leaders are calling on the Government to set out clear expectations to the public on when routine procedures and other treatments will be fully back online. This will take many months given the NHS will be operating with reduced capacity due to the ongoing impact of the virus and with an exhausted workforce.
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said:
“Over the last year, health and care staff have worked tirelessly in response to an unprecedented global threat. While it is encouraging that cases of coronavirus are beginning to come down in England, it is from a very high point and the impact on staff and patient services has been colossal.
“We are encouraged by the Government’s commitment to act with caution as it considers how and when to ease the lockdown restrictions in England as a further national wave would be a disaster for the NHS and would see more lives lost and the treatment backlog spiral even further.
“Health leaders will continue to prioritise urgent care and patients with the greatest clinical need, but staff are on their knees and many of the pre-pandemic challenges are still very much at play. We are calling on the Prime Minister to be up front with the public about what the NHS can safely deliver in this next phase.
“This includes setting clear expectations on activity, allocating resources where they are needed most, and moving away from upholding unrealistic standards that will be impossible to deliver in the short-term. These do nothing but demoralise NHS staff and perpetuate the misleading view that the service is failing.”
Also, the letter calls for the 52-week waiting time standard for non-urgent treatments to be suspended and be replaced with a more patient-centred approach that enables the NHS to focus on clinical need and avoids enforcing unattainable expectations on the NHS. The standard was introduced in 2010, when this list was over 20,800.
At the last count, around 192,000 people had been waiting over 52 weeks to receive planned routine surgery last November, compared to just over 1,600 a year ago.
The overall NHS waiting list in England stands at 4.46 million people and this is expected to grow further when the disruption seen over December and January owing to the spread of the more virulent strains of coronavirus, is reflected in the next monthly performance figures on Thursday (11 February).
While the NHS was able to make good progress over the summer in responding to some of the disruption to its services brought about by the pandemic, health leaders are clear that the NHS cannot recover at the same rate of increase this time round when staff are exhausted and there are over 5,000 more patients with coronavirus in hospitals across the UK right now, compared to at the peak in hospital patients seen during the first wave (26,723 patients on 07/02/2021, compared to 21,687 patients on 12/04/2020).
Elsewhere in its letter, the NHS Confederation says extra funding is needed to cover rolling vaccinations, including in response to further virus mutations; building extra capacity in hospitals; upholding social distancing and infection control measures; and supporting the growing number of patients with ‘Long Covid’. It is also required for mental health services, where it has been predicted that up to 10 million people – almost a fifth of the entire population – will need either new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of this crisis and the consequent economic downturn.
Dr McCay added: “The NHS has operated at the top of its capacity for far too long and this strategy is no longer sustainable. The NHS will need to be supported not just to recover and to restore services, but to expand its capacity, including across mental health services, and to invest in the system preparedness and resilience needed to operate safely and efficiently in a country where Covid-19 may never entirely disappear, and indeed, where other new infections may emerge.”