Rishi Sunak is holding emergency talks with health leaders in an attempt to alleviate the winter crisis in the NHS.
The Prime Minister is hosting experts including England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty and NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard in Downing Street.
Labour said the talks, being joined by Health Secretary Steve Barclay and Treasury minister John Glen, are a “talking shop” and patients “deserve more”.
Mr Sunak has been warned that the rare weekend meeting is unlikely to ease the pressure on frontline services, blamed on “years of inaction”.
Senior doctors say the NHS is on a knife edge, with many A&E units struggling to keep up with demand and trusts and ambulance services declaring critical incidents.
A wave of strikes and high levels of flu and coronavirus are adding to huge pressures in the health service.
Discharge rates fell to a new low in England last week, with only a third of patients ready to be released from hospital actually leaving.
Leaving the “NHS Recovery Forum”, consultant physician James Dunbar told reporters he was “confident that action will be taken” but not optimistic the crisis would be dealt with before spring.
“These are difficult problems to fix though, so I think it’s unlikely we’ll have it sorted by the end of this winter,” he said.
Dr Dunbar said “a lot of” senior clinical leaders taking part were “saying the same thing”, adding: “The Prime Minister seemed to understand that.”
Royal College of Emergency Medicine president Adrian Boyle said the crisis is “fixable” as he welcomed emergency care being “recognised as a priority”.
The day’s focus was on four crucial issues: social care and delayed discharge, urgent and emergency care, elective care and primary care.
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said there are “no silver bullets” to solve the crisis after “decades of underinvestment”.
“This crisis has been a decade or more in the making and we are now paying the high price for years of inaction and managed decline,” he said.
“Patients are experiencing delays that we haven’t seen for years.
“High levels of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and rising Covid levels are exacerbating the problem but the cause is decades of underinvestment in staffing, capital and the lack of a long-term solution to the capacity crunch facing social care.
“None of these problems can be solved tomorrow.”
The Prime Minister this week made reducing NHS waiting lists one of his key pledges over the next two years.
Attendees at the meeting were to include chief executives and clinical leaders from NHS organisations and councils from across the country, as well as experts from medical royal colleges and independent sector organisations working in health and social care services.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said “easing the immediate pressures whilst also focusing on the long-term improvement of the NHS” are among Mr Sunak’s key commitments.
“That’s why we’re bringing together the best minds from the health and care sectors to help share knowledge and practical solutions so that we can tackle the most crucial challenges such as delayed discharge and emergency care,” she said.
“We want to correct the unwarranted variation in NHS performance between local areas, because no matter where you live you should be able to access quality healthcare.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “After 13 years of mismanaging the NHS, this is the equivalent of the arsonists convening a forum with the fire brigade to put out the inferno they started.
“Patients deserve more than a talking shop.
“Clinical leaders and health experts have been sounding the alarm for months about the crisis the NHS is facing, so why has it taken so long for Rishi Sunak and Steve Barclay to decide to listen to them?”
Mr Streeting said the £500 million for delayed discharges promised by the Government is “yet to reach the front line and is now too late to make a difference this winter”.
NHS Confederation chief Mr Taylor said the investment came “too late to have maximum impact this winter”.
On Monday, Mr Barclay will meet union leaders to discuss NHS pay for the next financial year in talks that are unlikely to avert planned strikes.
Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen told the Prime Minister to “grasp the nettle and negotiate with nurses” to prevent industrial action.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ll of course go to the meeting and make the case for nursing in all forums, but it’s sadly not what’s going to prevent strike action that’s planned for 10 days’ time.
“I have put out an olive branch to get us to the table, I’m asking the Prime Minister now to meet the RCN halfway. The ball is firmly in the Prime Minister’s court.”
A Department of Health and Social Care source said the Health Secretary plans to host an “honest and constructive conversation about what is affordable for NHS pay in the coming year”.