NHS 'facing a winter-style crisis in the middle of summer'

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·Freelance news writer, Yahoo UK
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Experts have said the NHS is facing pressures this summer that would normally be expected in winter. (PA)
Experts have said the NHS is facing pressures this summer that would normally be expected in winter. (PA)

Experts are warning the NHS is facing extraordinary crisis levels never before seen in summer.

It comes amid warnings of a potentially record-breaking UK heatwave, staff shortages and the latest wave of COVID infections.

Dr Kit Yates, a Bath University academic and member of the Independent Sage group which scrutinises government COVID and healthcare policy, today pointed to major issues including:

  • an ambulance service in disarray: NHS England figures show Category 2 response times - for illnesses and injuries including strokes and severe burns - were at 51 minutes as of last month. This is nearly three times the target of 18 minutes

  • vast A&E waiting times: 28% of patients - more than 500,000 people - last month waited more than the target time of four hours to be admitted to A&E following arrival, while 4.4% - more than 20,000 people - faced a 12-hour wait to be admitted following the "decision to admit"

  • millions of people on waiting lists: as of May, more than 6.6 million people were awaiting hospital treatment with 1.5 million awaiting diagnostic tests. These in particular are problems exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Before the first lockdown in March 2020, this was just under four million

The growing COVID wave is likely to add to the issues faced by the NHS. The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey, considered the gold standard in monitoring the prevalence of coronavirus in the community, has suggested 3.5 million people have the virus, up 800,000 from last week.

Estimated COVID cases for the week to 6 July, the latest date for which data are available. (PA)
Estimated COVID cases for the week to 6 July, the latest date for which data are available. (PA)

While around six in 10 hospital patients who test positive for COVID are being treated primarily for something else, rather than the virus, they have to be kept isolated from patients who do not have the virus, putting extra pressure on hospital staff who are already struggling to clear the record backlog of treatment.

Meanwhile, an average of 22,918 hospital staff in England were absent for COVID-related reasons each day in the week to 6 July, the highest level in three months.

Dr Yates said: "The NHS is under extreme pressure in the middle of summer. It's not really being talked about. Certainly politicians seem to be ignoring it and hoping it goes away."

Patients waiting for NHS hospital treatment in England. (PA)
Patients waiting for NHS hospital treatment in England. (PA)

Health minister Maria Caulfield acknowledged on Wednesday, for example, that ambulance services are facing “the sort of pressures we would normally expect to see in winter”.

She added the government is “making sure that all NHS trusts are prepared” for the heatwave next week.

Nonetheless, there are questions about the government's focus on the NHS given the ongoing Conservative Party leadership contest.

Read more: Met Office issues first ever red extreme heat warning

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting noted new health secretary Steve Barclay - currently backing Rishi Sunak's leadership campaign - didn't turn up in the House of Commons on Wednesday to answer an urgent question addressing the state of health service. Caulfield, a junior health minister, was sent instead.

Dr Yates, meanwhile, said he is "surprised that more people are not up in arms about these figures".

He added: "Our health service is in crisis and yet the NHS has hardly even made an appearance in the campaign to be the UK's next prime minister."

And the issues prompted Dr Yates' Independent Sage colleague, Prof Christina Pagel, to say: "Just don't get sick."

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