A leading health chief has urged the Government to reopen talks with unions over pay, saying the “last thing” the NHS needs is four days of strikes in January.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS organisations, said the current situation in the health service is “very difficult” as it grapples with too few staff and high demand exacerbated by flu and Covid.
It comes after warnings over an “intolerable” situation in the NHS, with patients facing long waits for treatment, ambulances delayed, and thousands of beds taken up with medically-fit people who should not be there.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has repeated its claim that somewhere between 300 and 500 people are dying each week as a result of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care.
Chris Hopson, chief strategy officer at NHS England, has said the health service does not “recognise these numbers”.
Mr Taylor told BBC Breakfast: “There’s no doubt the situation is very difficult – that’s why many trusts have declared critical incidents.
“We are not able to provide the level of service we want to provide…
“The simple reality here is that the health service is caught between the fact that it has limited capacity, particularly when it comes to workforce – 130,000 vacancies – and a level of demand that it is difficult to meet in ordinary times.
“When you add in flu and Covid, which doesn’t just affect patients but also means many staff are off ill, that’s when you get to this very difficult situation we’re in.”
Asked if cases of flu and Covid have peaked, he said: “I think it’s very difficult to be clear. I don’t think the statistics would give us reason to feel that we have peaked – January is normally the hardest month for the health service.
“So I think the one thing that we can say is that it’s going to carry on being tough, and that’s why it’s important to be clear about the situation and it’s important to have clear messages to the public.
“But also… it’s really important that, as ministers return to their desks, that they consider ways of reopening negotiations with the trade unions because four days of strikes on top of the situation we’re in now is the last thing we need.”
Ambulance staff are set to walk out on January 11 and 23 in a dispute over pay, while nursing staff will strike for two consecutive days on January 18 and 19.
Mr Taylor said that, over the longer term, the NHS needs “sustained investment”, adding: “The Government in its autumn statement last year committed at last – after many years of delay – to a workforce strategy.
“Over time, if we have a proper workforce strategy and it is properly funded, that will make a difference.
“The Prime Minister has talked about the health service as a priority this year, and I think on one hand we’ve got to find ways of getting through this winter, but on the other hand we’ve got to commit to doing whatever we need to do to ensure that we enter next winter in a less fragile state.”
Elsewhere, Sally Warren,, director of policy at the King’s Fund think tank, said tens of thousands of people are waiting for social care assessments, which has an impact on hospitals.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “while they’re waiting, their condition might deteriorate and they may end up in the NHS system, be that with their GP, with NHS 111, or at the hospital front door”.
Richard Webber, spokesman for the College of Paramedics, said hospitals are “full of patients who should be elsewhere”, with many hospitals having 100 or 200 patients who should not be there due to being medically fit.
“They should be elsewhere being looked after in social care; they can’t be discharged, which means that the patients in the emergency department can’t be admitted to hospital,” he said.
A joint statement from the president of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh, Professor Andrew Elder, and the president of the Society for Acute Medicine, Dr Tim Cooksley, said the groups “have never been more concerned about standards of acute medical care across hospitals in the UK than we are now”.
It added: “At no point in the pandemic has the situation been as difficult. Whilst Covid-19 has not left us, and influenza is now contributing, these infections are not the primary cause of the problems.
“With patients waiting many, many hours to be assessed and treated, sometimes in ambulances queueing outside our hospitals, the maxim that our patients should receive ‘the right care, in the right place, at the right time’ has never been further away from the reality of what is actually being provided.
“This is an issue central to patient safety and quality of care… If the current situation is not a crisis in acute care we ask our governments to define what they believe a crisis to be.”
Well over a dozen NHS trusts and ambulance services declared critical incidents over the festive period, with the British Medical Association (BMA) saying the Government’s “political choices” are leading to patients “dying unnecessarily”.
Downing Street said on Tuesday the Government has been “up front” with the public about the pressure the NHS would face this winter.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman acknowledged that the current pressure on the health service was an “unprecedented challenge”.
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 in the backlog of cases that this would be an extremely challenging winter, and that is what we are seeing.”
He told reporters the pandemic was among the biggest causes of the current pressures on the NHS, but also pointed to delayed discharges as a reason.
Asked if the Prime Minister thought the NHS was in crisis, his spokesman said: “This is certainly an unprecedented challenge for the NHS brought about, as I say, by a number of factors.”
On strike action, he said: “It remains the option for those considering strike action to not follow that course of action.
“Clearly, any strike action seeks to disrupt the service provided and it’s no different for the NHS.”