NHS Providers: service must be nimble to address all challenges, says Stevens

by Seamus Ward

08 October 2020

The NHS must be as agile in its response to new challenges created by Covid-19 as it was in the early days of the pandemic, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has told the NHS Providers’ annual conference.

Echoing NHS Providers’ insistence that the NHS had never been a Covid-only service, he said that even at the peak of Covid admissions in early April for every Covid patient, hospitals were caring for two non-Covid inpatients.stevens ls

However, the NHS faced continuing challenges over the next few months as it will have to care for Covid patients – numbers are currently on the rise particularly in the north of England – the usual winter pressures and action to restore services to pre-pandemic levels.

Sir Simon (pictured) told the virtual conference that a significant minority of patients had developed so-called long Covid and were experiencing symptoms months after having the disease.

‘The NHS must be just as responsive and agile in its response to new needs as it was in critical care and acute capacity in the first phase in March, April and May,’ he said.

He announced the allocation of £10m for a network of long Covid clinics covering every area of England. The network will be complemented by other measures, such as clinical guidance on the condition, an online recovery service and a long Covid taskforce to oversee NHS support for those suffering from the condition.

Sir Simon added that an announcement on capital funding to eradicate mental health dormitory wards would be made soon.

Responding, NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said: ‘It was good to hear about the growing focus on the long term consequences of Covid-19, with funding for long Covid clinics to support capacity – including in the community – to offer patients holistic support.’

Amanda Pritchard, chief operating officer of NHS England and NHS Improvement and NHS Improvement chief executive, gave an update on the NHS response to guidance on restoring non-Covid services. The NHS is on track to meet its August and September activity targets, set out in guidance during the summer, she said.

She added: ‘Diagnostics is almost back to pre-Covid levels and, in some places, we are well ahead. It comes as no surprise to me, but it’s something we have to celebrate.’

She highlighted three areas of concern that were consequences of the pandemic. Much of the workforce was exhausted, the NHS had to convince patients it was safe to come back and waiting lists were too long, she said.

Many challenges lie ahead, but there were opportunities too for clinical leaders to drive high-quality care, using tools such as best practice pathways and digital platforms. Covid had brought a renewed spotlight on inequalities, while organisations should maintain the collaborative work evident during the pandemic, Ms Pritchard said.

Partnerships at place and system level will support NHS efforts to address inequalities, improve outcomes and reduce waste. ‘There will be a stronger role for provider collaboration and also streamlining of commissioners within a system to make sure we use resources wisely.’

Earlier in the conference, Mr Hopson had raised concerns about the governance of system working, the population size they would cover and that maximum efficiency is assured.

Ms Pritchard said legislation on system-level bodies, due to go before Parliament next year, would provide greater clarity to the framework around integrated care systems. She continued: ‘There is no suggestion this will take us away from having the clarity of individual organisations, like we have now on the provider side. There will be greater changes on the commissioning side, where there will be greater streamlining.’