A new year

by Caroline Clarke

09 April 2021

The NHS is in a different position at the start of the new financial year, and faces further challenges

I’m writing this article in the week after Easter, and have been reflecting on how different this year feels to last year. We cancelled Easter last year and we were just trying to understand what the implications of this strange new virus were. My hospitals were filling up and the oxygen demand was close to capacity. We’d stepped down most of our elective work and had transferred the urgent work to the private sector.

I was recovering from Covid. I remember tuning in daily to the political briefings from Downing Street, and being both horrified and obsessed with the rising mortality. I gave up watching those briefings sometime after the Barnard Castle incident. I am still horrified by the UK mortality rate, but no longer obsessed.

This year does feel totally different: we’ve come through a more difficult second wave of the virus, and we are now obsessed with different things: making sure we get our planned services back up and running at a pace and scale that exceeds anything we’ve done before. And we’re thinking about how we give our staff a much-needed holiday at the same time, and get them to work in ever more flexible ways. These are tricky problems to solve but we are getting there. 

Many people reading this will be thinking about plans for this new financial year – happy new year by the way – and wondering how the first half of the year might work financially, and then wondering what on earth it all means for the rest of the year.  

For me, it’s great to see such a focus on our staff at the centre of the plan, but of course we need more clarity on how we are going to fund workforce gaps.

It’s great to see additional funding for elective activity, but let’s not forget that the NHS had over 4 million patients waiting for treatment before the pandemic, so that extra £1bn will get spent quite quickly and will only dent the overall list. 

We must spend it wisely, and have some really honest conversations about what is possible. Additional funding for mental health services is really welcome, but again, we’ll need to target wisely to get maximum impact from £0.5bn. Overall, it’s good to see a sense of priority, but unclear how we will solve some of our longer-term issues. 

It’s hard to write anything at the moment without mentioning the vaccination programme. Guidance is coming out almost daily on the relative safety and efficacy of the Oxford AZ vaccine, but the overwhelming message has to be that there have been fewer deaths this year as a result of that programme. 

It is truly amazing that 32 million people in the UK have had at least one jab – I’ve never been part of any mass effort like that, and it’s truly humbling to see the system pull together. I really hope that we can learn the lessons from this and apply them to other areas. And it goes without saying – if you are reading this and have been offered a jab, I hope you said yes.

Happy new year everyone, and I hope to see some of you virtually or in real life later in the year as the branch conference season gets going.