The NHS has experienced its toughest summer ever, the head of the health service in England has said as hospitals prepare for the autumn and a likely inevitable winter crisis.
In a message to NHS staff on Tuesday, shared with The Independent, NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard told bosses the NHS was going to have work in different ways to bring the backlog of waiting patients down as staff could not simple be asked to work harder and do more of the same.
Ms Pritchard, who took over from Sir Simon Stevens in July, acknowledged the “very challenging circumstances” during the summer with the military called in to support overwhelmed ambulance services and hospital A&E departments reporting record numbers of patients.
She said: “The summer normally gives the NHS an opportunity to catch our breath, but this year there has been very little let-up in the pressure. In fact, this has been the NHS’s toughest summer and, in many ways, much more like some of the difficult winters we have all experienced.
“Urgent and emergency care and ambulance services are under particular strain, but I know how hard you and your teams are working across all parts of the system to deliver the very best patient care.”
In recent months The Independent has highlighted a summer crisis in demand on the NHS which has led to widespread cancellations of operations, including for cancer patients, as the numbers of coronavirus cases have risen. There are more than 5,500 patients in hospital with Covid in England.
She warned that the NHS could not just demand more from staff, adding: “We must keep up the momentum on recovering services and addressing the elective backlogs that have inevitably built up while hospitals cared for more than 450,000 patients with Covid.
“This pandemic has had a huge impact on our staff both physically and emotionally, and as we work to recover services we must make sure that we keep this in the front of our minds.
“It will not be enough to simply work ever harder and to do more of the same. We need to bring the same spirit of innovation that saw us transform care in the response to the pandemic to find new ways to tackle new challenges.”
She particularly highlighted efforts that will be needed to address inequality among patients which has been exacerbated during the pandemic.
Ms Pritchard welcomed the recent investment from the government in providing the NHS an extra £5.4 billion for the rest of this year as well as a £36 billion increase from a new hike in national insurance which will see money go first to the NHS.
She said this new money came with “understandable expectations to ensure that every pound we are given to deliver for patients is spent wisely.”
She did not give more details as to what was agreed with ministers over the funding but NHS trusts have already been told they may have to make savings despite extra investment.
The NHS England boss praised staff for what they had achieved since the end of lockdown with activity levels in hospital on routine operations now at around 90 per cent of where they were before the Covid pandemic.
She added: “More urgent cancer checks have been carried out this summer than were happening before the pandemic struck, while other diagnostic checks are also hugely up on last year and approaching pre-Covid levels.
“Primary care, which has always been the front door to the NHS, has been right at the coalface, delivering over 100 million appointments. We have also seen colleagues in mental health and community working hard to deal with the impact of Covid in the face of increasing demand.”