NHS: Sunak government to unveil ‘virtual’ hospital wards plan

Rishi Sunak’s government is set to announce plans to treat more than half a million patients a year in “virtual” hospital wards as part of a plan to reform urgent and emergency care.

The Department of Health and Social Care said about 50,000 elderly and vulnerable people could receive tailored support at home each month, as part of a strategy to shift some NHS care out of hard-pressed hospitals.

Around 3,000 virtual beds are due to be created before next winter.

The plan comes amid a slew of reports that hospitals are struggling to cope because of severe pressure on staff, with walkouts by nurses set to continue as a dispute over pay and conditions rumbles on.

The latest data shows that ambulance handover delays outside hospitals in England have dropped to their lowest level so far this winter, but one in five patients are still waiting at least half an hour to be transferred to A&E teams.

Health secretary Steve Barclay claimed that up to 20 per cent of hospital admissions are avoidable with the right care in place, and said that the plan would help “ease pressure” on stretched A&E services.

“The health and care service is facing significant pressures, and while there is no quick fix, we can take immediate action to reduce long waits for urgent and emergency care,” said Mr Barclay. “By expanding the care provided in the community, the most vulnerable, frail and elderly patients can be better supported to continue living independently or recover at home.

“This includes rolling out more services to help with falls and frailty, as well as supporting up to 50,000 patients a month to recover in the comfort of their own homes.”

The average wait for an ambulance for heart attacks and strokes hit 93 minutes in December, the latest figures show – double the 43-minute wait seen in the previous month. More than 55,000 patients had to wait at least 12 hours in A&E.

NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said the health service had faced a “twindemic” of flu and Covid-19 during a difficult winter.

“Our extensive planning ahead of winter has helped to boost capacity, from extra 111 and 999 call handlers to new falls services and more beds, and we now aim to build on that progress to help speed up care and improve the experiences of patients,” she said.

The government said that the plan builds on the virtual wards already in place in the NHS, which see patients treated from home while being monitored by medics either through daily visits or video calls.

The plan will see the use of urgent community response teams scaled up, with hopes that it will increase the number of patients seen by healthcare staff within two hours.

The government pointed to the £14.1bn available for health and care services over the next two years, as announced in the autumn statement.

James Jamieson, chair of the Local Government Association, said: “We are pleased to see the focus on expanding community health and care services, and the recognition of the importance of therapy and recovery support to get people back home following discharge.

“Collaboration and a focus on outcomes will be key to successful delivery of the plan.”