Senior doctors on Monday said the pressures facing the NHS were “intolerable and unsustainable”, with some of the UK’s accident and emergency departments at crisis point, as the government stressed that reducing pressure on the health service was its “top priority”.
NHS leaders issued dire warnings over patient safety as a combination of rising Covid-19 and flu cases, pandemic backlogs and staff vacancies intensified pressure on a strained health service.
Professor Phil Banfield, chair of British Medical Association, said the situation in the health service was now “intolerable and unsustainable”, accusing the government of ignoring repeated requests to “sit down and talk” with the doctor’s union.
“This is a political choice and patients are dying unnecessarily because of that choice,” he said. “The government must step up and take immediate action. Without intervention, waiting lists will continue to grow, patients will continue to suffer and staff will continue to leave.”
He accused Rishi Sunak of being “disingenuous” after the prime minister said in his New Year’s message that the government had “taken decisive action” to support the NHS by increasing funding and recruitment.
On Monday, education minister Robert Halfon said tackling the pressures on the health service remained high on Sunak’s agenda. “I’m absolutely clear that the prime minister treats this as a top priority,” he told the BBC. “We’re increasing the NHS capacity by the equivalent of 7,000 beds, spending an extra £500mn to speed up hospital discharge and improve capacity. There is an extra £150mn for the ambulance service.”
Banfield’s comments followed a series of warnings from senior figures in the NHS figures over the long New Year’s weekend.
Dr Ian Higginson, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM), which monitors standards in A&E departments, said that some patients were waiting well beyond the recommended time limit of 30 minutes after arrival at hospital for 95 per cent of ambulance handovers.
“The waits being experienced by patients currently are appalling, so we are hearing of patients who are in our emergency departments waiting to be admitted now for up to four days and it used to be four hours,” he told the BBC.
Higginson added that some emergency departments were in a “complete state of crisis”, warning that doctors were now “unable to provide care at the standard” they would like.
Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the RCEM, estimated that between 300 and 500 people were dying as the consequence of delays in urgent and emergency care each week.
Compounding the crisis, nurses, paramedics and ambulance drivers are set for a fresh wave of strikes later this month.
Members of the Royal College of Nursing, who walked out for the first time in their history in December over demands for a 19 per cent pay rise, will stage further industrial action on January 18 and 19. Unison has confirmed that ambulance workers at five NHS trusts in England will strike on January 11 and January 23.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, urged ministers to negotiate with health unions on pay in order to avoid “more damaging strike action when services will be at its most fraught”.
He added: “Health leaders have been telling us that the pressures their staff are facing are becoming unbearable . . . We need the government to commit to do everything within its power to prevent the NHS from entering the next winter in this same fragile state that has sadly become the norm over recent winters.”
Meanwhile, Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, urged parents to take precautions as children return to school.
“It’s important to minimise the spread of infection in schools and other education and childcare settings as much as possible. If your child is unwell and has a fever, they should stay home from school or nursery until they feel better and the fever has resolved,” she said.
“Adults should also try to stay home when unwell and, if you do have to go out, wear a face covering. When unwell, don’t visit healthcare settings unless urgent or visit vulnerable people.”