The Prime Minister will hold emergency talks with NHS and care leaders in an attempt to reverse Britain’s winter healthcare crisis.
In a sign of the scale of the problems facing the NHS, Rishi Sunak will spend Saturday focusing on how to ease the pressure on frontline services.
But Mr Sunak has been warned that the rare weekend meeting is unlikely to reverse the NHS’ fortunes, which have been 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.
Discharge rates fell to a new low in England last week, with only a third of those patients ready to be released from hospital actually leaving.
Mr Sunak, during a visit to a school on Friday, said he recognised that the NHS was “under enormous pressure”.
No 10’s NHS Recovery Forum will see the Prime Minister hold talks with health experts about how to improve performance.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay, Treasury minister John Glen, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden and the chief executive officer of NHS England Amanda Pritchard are also set to attend.
The focus will be on four crucial issues: social care and delayed discharge, urgent and emergency care, elective care, and primary care.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said there were “no silver bullets” to solving the crisis currently being experienced at hospitals and other care centres.
“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,” said Mr Taylor.
“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 under-investment 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, in his first speech of 2023 on Wednesday, made reducing NHS waiting lists one of his key pledges before the next election, which is due to take place before 2025.
Saturday’s Downing Street forum is expected to last most of the day.
As well as ministers, attendees will include chief executives and clinical leaders from NHS organisations, local areas and councils from across the country.
Clinical experts from Royal Colleges and independent sector organisations working with health and social care services to deliver services for patients are also expected to join the Prime Minister.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “As the Prime Minister made clear this week, easing the immediate pressures whilst also focusing on the long-term improvement of the NHS is one of his key promises.
“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.
“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 branded the meeting a “talking shop”.
The senior Labour figure 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, a former Labour and Tony Blair aide, agreed with the criticism, saying the investment to improve discharge rates came “too late to have maximum impact this winter”.
He added: “Indeed, some local systems are still awaiting their allocation.
“Any similar funding next year must be provided four to six months in advance so it can genuinely ease winter pressures.”
On Monday, Mr Barclay will meet with union leaders to discuss NHS pay for the next financial year.
However, Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen has told the Prime Minister to “grasp the nettle and negotiate with nurses” over the current settlement to prevent planned strikes.
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”.