The prime minister has urged health leaders at an emergency meeting to take “bold and radical” action to alleviate the winter crisis in the NHS.
Rishi Sunak warned them during Downing Street talks on Saturday, that a “business-as-usual mindset won’t fix the challenges we face”.
His plea came as ministers, health leaders and clinical experts all met at Number 10 in an attempt to solve short and long-term issues facing the health service, talks which were described by the PM’s spokesperson as “highly valuable”.
Senior doctors have said the NHS is in a very precarious situation, with A&E units struggling with demand and health trusts and ambulance services declaring critical incidents.
Strikes and high numbers of flu and COVID-19 patients are increasing the pressure.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty and NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard were among those at the NHS Recovery Forum.
A government spokesperson said the PM was grateful to the health and social care experts who attended Saturday’s forum – and to the wider workforce they represent for all their “hard work and dedication, especially during the pandemic”.
They said the discussions had been “highly valuable” and “next steps will be set out in due course”.
The talks were set to focus on four key issues: reducing delays in discharging hospital patients to social care; how to improve A&E and ambulance service performance; cutting waiting times for operations; and relieving pressure on GPs.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay pledged to take further steps to “improve the flow through our hospitals”, with around 13,000 NHS beds blocked by delays in discharging payments.
Following his vow, The Sunday Times reported that a proposed emergency winter pressure package will include a hospital discharge fund for thousands of NHS patients to be moved to care home beds.
Thousands of beds could be block-bought by the government under the strategy, the paper says, which is hoped to have an effect within a month.
‘Further and faster’
Mr Barclay also tweeted details of at least two possible solutions to some of the issues.
He said on Twitter: “We’re identifying solutions – including virtual wards & a new fall service [for people injured by falls and trips] that can save 55,000 ambulance callouts a year.
“Great to meet with health & care leaders today to see how we can go further and faster.”
It is understood the “fall service” aims to try to prevent falls in elderly people, who then require unnecessary admission to hospital.
The service already operates in some local areas, and it is thought the government may be looking at expanding it nationwide. One such service in central London provides assessment, advice and exercise for older people who are at risk of falling.
Labour earlier said the summit, joined by Treasury minister John Glen, was merely a “talking shop” and patients “deserve more”.
PM’s ‘Saturday school’ came after education by his family members in health service
Today Number 10 was the location for a special ‘Saturday school’ with Rishi Sunak as the sole student.
Part personal tutorial, part publicity opportunity, the PM seemed to be replicating his hands-on formula to handling the autumn statement and the small boats crisis.
In all three cases, he has muscled in on the work of a cabinet colleague, convened meetings of experts, and drilled down into the detail. The implication: if you want something sorted, he’s the person to do it.
Government sources claim part of the PM’s NHS education came from his own extended family who work in the health service: they told him all about its myriad problems over the Christmas break.
From speaking to today’s attendees outside No 10, it seems proposals discussed included taking pressure off GPs by letting pharmacists play a larger role in diagnosing small ailments, and better controlling who comes in and out of hospitals.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay tweeted that “solutions” identified at the event included “virtual wards” – using technology so patients can get care at home – as well as a new fall service that could save 55,000 ambulance callouts a year.
Today’s ‘Saturday summit’ was about solutions for the long term but the immediate problem for the NHS remains strikes.
Trade unions weren’t invited and the BMA argued: “It tells you everything you need to know about this government’s approach that the only people not invited to an NHS recovery forum are the NHS workforce.”
Mr Barclay is due to meet union leaders on Monday, but Rishi Sunak has now put himself centre stage in solving the NHS crisis.
The danger of that strategy is if his plan doesn’t work, the PM will end up being the face of that failure.
The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, wasn’t at the talks but has urged the PM to negotiate with striking health workers – such as nurses – who are seeking more pay.
Leaving the forum, consultant physician James Dunbar told reporters he was “confident that action will be taken” but not optimistic the crisis would be dealt with before the spring.
“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.
Royal College of Emergency Medicine president Adrian Boyle said the crisis is “fixable” as he welcomed emergency care being “recognised as a priority”.
Downing Street has committed to publishing recovery plans to improve ambulance and A&E waiting times “in the coming weeks”.
If there continue to be no negotiations on nurses’ pay, more strikes are on the cards for 18 and 19 January, and Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen has warned they will be the largest of their kind in the world.