The Department of Health and Social Care said it was providing £250m to create 900 beds in hospitals to treat patients more quickly and cut waiting lists. Thirty trusts will share the funding, which will also be used to develop or expand urgent treatment centres and same day emergency services. It is part of £1bn already announced as part the urgent and emergency care services recovery plan, which promised in January to deliver 5,000 new beds for next winter.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak reiterated that cutting waiting lists was one of his top five priorities. ‘So this year the government has started planning for winter earlier than ever before and the public can be reassured we are backing the NHS with the resources it needs,’ he said.
NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard said it was right to put robust plans in place early to help frontline staff prepare for additional pressure. ‘Our winter plans, which build on the progress already made on our urgent and emergency care recovery plan, aim to reduce waiting times for patients and to transform services with an expansion of same day care and virtual wards, helping patients to be cared for in their own home where possible,’ she said.
NHS Providers welcomed the additional support, acknowledging that it could help close the gap between capacity and demand. However, Miriam Deakin, the organisation’s director of policy and strategy, warned that the beds would need to be staffed and the NHS still faced significant issues such as workforce shortages, too little capital and the need for social care reform.
‘Similarly, other parts of the health system, including mental health and community services, need adequate investment in physical capacity to meet high demand,’ she said. ‘As winter is the busiest time of the year for urgent and emergency care, trust leaders will be very concerned that this extra capacity is only expected to be in place by January. For the best results, trusts would need these new beds before winter begins.’
The NHS Confederation’s Acute Network director Rory Deighton said it was not clear if 5,000 beds would be sufficient, but it was ‘certainly a step in the right direction’. However, he also raised concerns about staffing the beds, with ongoing strike action exacerbating the situation. ‘NHS leaders may have questions on how these beds will be safely staffed given that vacancy numbers remain high, the long-term workforce plan is in its infancy, and industrial action is ongoing,’ he said. ‘To give this initiative, and others, the best possible chance of success the government must find a way to bring nine months of strike action to a close.’
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