A senior Conservative MP has called on the Government to “get a better grip” on the NHS and warned that the health service’s capacity is at full stretch.
Dr Sarah Wollaston said patients whose operations have been cancelled to allow hospitals to deal with intense pressures during the winter, would now think the NHS is in crisis despite claims from authorities that is not.
The chair of the Commons Health Committee went on to demand an increase in health spending to deal with the “sheer scale” of demand.
Tens of thousands of patients are expected to be affected after hospitals in England were told to delay pre-planned operations and routine outpatient appointments until the end of the month to free up services.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Dr Wollaston said: “If you have a very major increase in people who are living longer with complex conditions, that produces particular demands on the health system that I think they need to get a better grip on, to understand the sheer scale of the increase in demand across health and social care.
“That's what they need to do better planning for and there are many people prepared to come together with good will across political parties to help them achieve that and I think they should take that opportunity.”
NHS bosses claimed on Tuesday that the health service is not in crisis, and said that authorities had better prepared this year than in previous ones.
Dr Wollaston did not herself say the NHS was in crisis, but asked if patients missing out on operations would see the current situation as one, she responded: “Of course you would”.
She went on: “Certainly what we have is a system that's running at absolutely full stretch across both health and social care and despite all the planning that we've heard about, I'm afraid there are serious issues with capacity, far too many bed closures that have happened and probably not enough money that's gone in over a number of years now to keep up with the sheer scale of the increase in demand and complexity."
Dr Wollaston argued it was now the "right time" to have a sensible cross-party discussion about NHS funding.
She said there has been a lack of sufficient planning for how the country is going to fund services over the long term.
The MP also spoke about problem drinking and obesity, arguing that Government "needs to be pulling more levers as well to help, to do their bit to prevent system problems".
She added: "We do need to spend more on health in my view and we need to have a plan for how we're going to do that fairly, but if we just focus on the NHS alone or on social care on its own we won't get there, we need something that plans across the whole system."
The NHS has taken the drastic step of extending the cancellation of non-urgent operations to include thousands more minor procedures this month, with officials estimating this could lead to up to 55,000 deferred operations.
One consultant in emergency medicine in Stoke-on-Trent, one of the country’s largest A&E departments, tweeted about “third world conditions” in his hospital.
Dr Richard Fawcett said: “As an A&E consultant at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust I personally apologise to the people of Stoke for the third world conditions of the department due to overcrowding.”
Professor Keith Willett, director for acute care at NHS England, acknowledged the delay to planned operations and routine outpatient appointments was "not ideal" for patients.
He said: "I fully accept that for the individual that will be really very uncomfortable, but what we know is if we don't have a plan in place and we don't do this in a structured way, what will happen, as we've had in previous winters, is lots of last-minute cancellations which is really distracting for patients, it's inconvenient, it upsets the plans they've put together with their family, particularly for elderly patients where their care needs are often quite significant."
Prof Willett argued the NHS was "better prepared" and clear recommendations were being implemented to deal with pressures.
He said: "A crisis is when you haven't got in place mitigations and you haven't got a plan to deal with it.
"We've gone into this winter in a way that we've never prepared before, so we went into the winter before Christmas having cancelled fewer elective operations than we had previously, discharges from hospital were at a lower level than they had been previously, so we were better prepared.”