Health Secretary Steve Barclay blames flu, Covid and Strep A for NHS winter crisis

A war of words erupted on Tuesday night as Health Secretary Steve Barclay was criticised for blaming high flu cases, fears over Strep A and Covid for the extreme pressure facing the NHS.

One health leader said it was “disingenuous” for the Cabinet minister to blame the pandemic for the reasons behind record waits in A&E and for ambulances.

NHS bosses have said the pressure on the health service is “intolerable and unbearable” for both patients and staff, with the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) on Monday claiming that delays to emergency treatment were causing 500 deaths a week.

Patients are currently enduring record waits to be discharged into A&E while ambulance crews are spending hours queuing outside hospitals waiting to hand over patients, contributing to delays in responding to calls in the community.

Several NHS trusts have declared critical incidents in the past week, with strike action by nurses and paramedics set to increase pressure on the health service later this month.

Asked about the pressures facing the health service, Mr Barclay said: "There's £500 million of investment this year going into tackling the pressure in terms of social care. So we're putting more funding in. We've got more clinicians, we've got more staff working in the NHS.

"Of course there's a range of factors that we need to do. There's been particular pressures over Christmas because we've had a surge in flu cases, Covid cases and also a lot of concern around Strep A."

Mr Barclay added that he was focused on “getting the people out of the hospital who don't need to be there" in order to "speed up the ambulance handover delays”.

Asked what reassurances he could give to people that the NHS is "safe", Mr Barclay told broadcasters: "We are putting in more funding, we've got more staff, over 34,000 more staff working in the NHS, so there's more nurses, more doctors, we have got an extra 7,500 going into social care,we are looking at greater support for domiciliary care..."

But Dr Adrian Boyle, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said it was "disingenuous to blame the current situation on the pandemic", adding: "The structural problems were there long before."

Analysis by the Standard found that ambulance crews lost more than 2,500 hours due to handover delays in the week up to December 25.

The target is for handovers to be completed within 15 minutes. Ambulance chiefs have warned that handover delays are leading to patients dying.

Hospitals are struggling to discharge patients and free up capacity in A&E as many beds are occupied by patients in need of adult social care who have nowhere else to go.

London trusts are also dealing with a surge in flu patients, with the number of beds occupied by flu patients rising elevenfold in a month.

A total of 310 flu patients were occupying hospital beds in the capital on Christmas Eve, a sharp jump from the 28 reported on November 20.

During the same period last year, there were only 34 patients in hospital with flu across England. Health officials say that the UK’s relative lack of immunity due to Covid restrictions on social mixing is fuelling a particularly bad flu season.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson on Tuesday denied that the NHS was in crisis but conceded that it was dealing with an “unprecedented challenge”.

Asked if Mr Sunak believed the health service was in crisis, he said: “This is certainly an unprecedented challenge for the NHS brought about, as I say, by a number of factors — most significantly the global pandemic.”

He added: “I think we have been up front with the public long in advance of this winter that because of the pandemic and the pressures it’s placed on the backlog of cases that this would be an extremely challenging winter, and that is what we are seeing.”

Industrial action set to take place later this month is expected to increase pressure on the NHS. Ambulance staff are set to walk out on January 11 and 23 in a row over pay, while nursing staff will strike on January 18 and 19.

Royal College of Nursing general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen said: "We are seeing A&E in a dangerous state, social care overloaded, primary care suffering and staff truly broken.

"The Government cannot blame the pandemic and other winter pressures for the crisis unfolding before our eyes - this has been a long time in the making yet the Government has consistently ignored warnings.

"It is painful and infuriating to be in this position - especially for patients and for our members who are struggling on the front line every day.

"One of the root causes is the ever-worsening workforce crisis, with nurses leaving in their droves because of a decade of real-terms pay cuts.

"Without enough staff, patients will never be safe. Yet the Prime Minister and his Government continue to refuse to even meet with us to talk about pay."