Patients are not getting the “care they deserve”, the Prime Minister has admitted as he warned that “something has to change” in the NHS.
Rishi Sunak said pressures facing the health service were the “biggest worry” for people.
But he said that the NHS should not pause non-emergency surgeries to alleviate the current crisis.
Amid warnings from senior doctors that the NHS is under intolerable pressure, the Prime Minister said that “waiting lists will fall and people will get the care they need more quickly”.
The Government has blamed high numbers of flu cases, Covid-19 and Strep A fears for the particular pressures the NHS faced over Christmas, even as health leaders have warned that the problems are longstanding and cannot solely be pinned on the pandemic.
In his first major speech of 2023, Mr Sunak said the issues facing A&E and strikes were “at the forefront of everyone’s minds”.
“I know there are challenges in A&E – people are understandably anxious when they see ambulances queuing outside hospitals,” he said.
“You should know we’re taking urgent action: increasing bed capacity by 7,000 more hospital beds and more people cared for at home; providing new funding to discharge people into social care and the community, freeing up beds and the NHS are working urgently on further plans for A&E and ambulances.”
And he acknowledged the “most acute” pressure in the NHS is on A&E.
Asked how soon things will improve in the NHS this winter, Mr Sunak said: “I think that’s the thing that people are most worried about.”
Meanwhile, he said that NHS waiting times are “too high” as he pledged that waiting lists will fall.
The NHS in England has previously estimated that the waiting list will be reducing by around March 2024.
“Covid has imposed massive new pressures and people are waiting too long for the care they need,” Mr Sunak added.
“We’re fixing that, but we need to do more.
“At a time when we’re putting record sums into the NHS and recruiting record numbers of doctors and nurses, healthcare professionals are still unable to deliver the care they want and patients aren’t receiving the care they deserve.
“So we need to recognise that something has to change.
“That doesn’t mean structural reforms to the NHS – we will always protect the founding principle of an NHS free at the point of use.”
He said that the health service should utilise private hospitals more “if that’s what it takes to get patients quicker and better care”.
Asked whether the NHS should pause non-emergency surgery – also known as elective care – the Prime Minister added: “There is a range of thing we’re doing that will make the most difference to A&E and urgent care and the most pressing priority we have is to move people into social care and into communities.
“That will mean that we can actually get ambulances flowing as fast as we would like and make sure people are moving into A&E as quickly as we would like them to be seen.
“The point on electives highlights the issue – that’s what we shouldn’t do… that’s what happened during Covid, we stopped doing elective surgery – the amount of elective activity in the NHS was down to about half of what it normally does, so the reason we have got a huge waiting list now is because we have got to catch up with that.”
Mr Sunak added: “My priority is to do both (elective and emergency care) and I think the plan we have got in place will deliver it.”
Much of elective care activity in the NHS was paused during the pandemic – which is part of the reason the backlog of care has risen to record levels.
But, even before the pandemic, the health service has previously paused non-emergency surgeries and procedures when pressure mounted to significant levels.
Meanwhile, Mr Sunak said the NHS’ workforce strategy would be developed early this year.
Commenting on the speech, Dr Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “It is imperative that, politically, urgent and emergency care recovery is given the same importance as elective – non-urgent – recovery.
“The PM’s speech today continues to woefully under-represent the appalling and insufferable conditions currently being experienced by NHS patients and staff.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “NHS leaders are telling us daily that the pressures their staff are facing are becoming truly unbearable, so they will be questioning whether the Prime Minister and his Government, given how this – worst on record – winter crisis is unfolding before us, have truly understood the sheer scale of demand versus the capacity of the health service to deliver against it.”
Adam Brimelow, director of communications at NHS Providers, said: “The Prime Minister’s pledge to cut waiting lists so that people get the care they need more quickly is an ambition that everyone in the NHS shares but his speech was short on detail about how this will be achieved.”
Pat Cullen, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “The Prime Minister’s language appeared detached from the reality of what is happening and why. As far as the current NHS situation, it focused on false promise and hollow boasts when practical and urgent measures are required on the part of Government.”
Earlier on Wednesday, TV presenter Dr Hilary Jones blasted the Prime Minister over his handling of the NHS, warning it is at risk of collapse.
Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, the GP shared the experiences of “heartbroken” frontline doctors and said if the situation “doesn’t change very quickly, the NHS is finished”.
Louise Ansari, national director for Healthwatch England, said: “While we know the NHS is still providing vital treatment to the vast majority of those in need, it is also clear to us that the experience of accessing care is getting worse and that, tragically, for some people they are not getting the help they need in time.”
The Doctors’ Association UK said it has written an open letter to Mr Sunak and shared doctor stories, including of a patient who could have survived with quicker care.
The medic said of the patient: “He’d been in the waiting room for eight hours before collapsing and being moved to resus. If the waiting time had been less, and he’d been seen a few hours sooner, he’d have probably survived.”
A GP in Manchester also told of having to take patients to A&E owing to long waits for ambulances, including one patient with sepsis and another at risk of cardiac arrest.