NHS leaders have welcomed the investment of an extra £200m for the NHS to help with winter pressures, but warned that it may have limited impact with the ongoing industrial action.
The government announced the ‘new funding’ after a meeting on Wednesday between the prime minister Rishi Sunak, the health and social care secretary and NHS leaders. In addition, £40m is being invested in social care to bolster capacity and improve discharge from hospital.
The government said planning for winter had started earlier than ever this year, with an urgent and emergency care recovery plan backed by £1bn providing 5,000 extra beds, 800 new ambulances and 10,000 virtual beds.
As a result, it said that category two ambulance response times were now 27 minutes faster than in the summer last year and there are more than 2,500 additional general and acute beds. It also highlighted its primary care recovery plan, which it said was ‘freeing up 15 million GP appointments’. And it said progress had been made on elective recovery, with two year and 18 month waits eliminated.
The £200m is intended to help the service cope with its busiest period of the year, with increased pressures from flu and Covid and the ongoing industrial action.
‘Winter is the most challenging time for the health service, which is why we’ve been planning for it all year – with huge government investment to fund new ambulances, beds and virtual wards,’ said Mr Sunak (pictured). ‘This extra £200m will bolster the health service during its busiest period, while protecting elective care so we can keep cutting waiting lists.’
NHS leaders said the funds, which they had been assured represented ‘new and additional money’ would help, but raised doubts about how far the resources would go in the face of extreme pressures.
‘Realistically many of our members may question how much impact this will have given the close proximity to winter, and also what good this will do against the backdrop of industrial action estimated to have already cost in the region of £1bn,’ said Matthew Taylor, NHS Confederation chief executive.
He called for honesty around the extent of the current financial challenge – both in terms of the costs of ongoing industrial action and the demanding efficiency savings that systems were being asked to make.
‘The risk is that this money is simply absorbed to cover existing and escalating costs elsewhere, with patients seeing little benefit in terms of day-to-day care, waiting lists or performance,’ he added.
NHS Providers director of policy and strategy Miriam Deakin called for ‘urgent clarity’ on whether the money would be tied to specific initiatives or could be used to provide general additional support. She also singled out the need to resolve ongoing strikes, which were acting as a drag on recovery and undermining staff morale.
The government said that the £40m for social care was part of the £600m social care winter workforce package, with local authorities able to bid for funds to boost provision over winter. The funding can be used to buy more services to keep people out of hospital and home care packages to enable quicker hospital discharge. Specialist dementia support services will also be eligible.
Ms Deakin welcomed the extra funds but called on ministers to ‘take a long, hard look at the fundamental long-term challenges facing social care rather than trying to get by through short-term quick fixes’.
While the government highlighted improving ambulance response times over the last year, the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives warned there was no room for complacency as it reported ‘staggering’ rises in handover delays over the past decade.
In an update on its 2012 report on handover delays, it said that 68% of handovers took longer than the 15-minute target in 2022/23, compared with just 20% in 2011. And handovers taking more than an hour have also shot up. These were rarely seen in 2011, but Taking stock: assessing patient handover delays a decade after ‘zero tolerance' said they accounted for 14% of the total in the most recent year.
AACE managing director, Martin Flaherty acknowledged there had been some improvements as a results of the priority focus that had been put on ambulance handovers during the past year. But he said the service was still in a ‘precarious position’. ‘There is no room for complacency and considerable work for us all to continue to do to prevent handover delays, including in the devolved regions where there is also significant variation,’ he said.
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