Therese Coffey inherits NHS ‘in crisis’

·6-min read

Therese Coffey has inherited an NHS and social care system “in crisis”, health leaders have said.

Experts from across the sector have welcomed Ms Coffey to her new role as Health Secretary but warned that she has taken on the job during a challenging period for the health service.

As well as being appointed as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for England, Ms Coffey is stepping up to become Liz Truss’s second-in-command as Deputy Prime Minister.

Experts have said that they hope the dual role shows that the Government is taking the challenges facing the health service “seriously”.

They also welcomed the indication from the new Prime Minister that she would “put our health service on a firm footing”.

Health leaders said that the pressing items in Ms Coffey’s in-tray will include:

– A record waiting list;

– Problems in urgent and emergency care;

– Soaring numbers of patients stuck in hospital due to so-called “delayed discharges”;

– A crisis in dentistry services with many struggling to access care;

– challenges facing mental health, community, acute and ambulance services;

– Worries over winter pressures including further waves of Covid-19 and additional pressures from flu;

– Concerns over how the cost of living crisis will impact the health service;

– The possibility of health and care staff taking industrial action over pay.

Ms Coffey, told Sky News: “We’ve got priorities A, B, C, D – ambulances, backlogs, care, D – doctors and dentists. And we’re going to work through that and we’ll make sure that we’re delivering for the patients”.

Asked whether she is ready for strikes, she said: “I think we’ve got to be ready for patients and that’s my top priority, and how we can make best use of our department and of course the NHS in order to achieve the best outcomes for them”.

And asked what her message is to potentially demoralised NHS staff, Ms Coffey she recognised “they’ve done excellent work” and repeated her priorities.

Ms Coffey takes over as Health Secretary from Steve Barclay who moves to the backbenches after a brief time in the role following Sajid Javid’s resignation in June 2022. Mr Javid in turn replaced Matt Hancock after he resigned for breaching pandemic rules.

Commenting on the announcement, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said: “Trust leaders will look to the new Health and Social Care Secretary to provide much-needed stability and leadership in the face of significant challenges, and to fight its corner as pressures mount on the service.

“They will hope that the link between the deputy prime minister and health and social care secretary roles is an indication of how seriously the new Prime Minister and her Government are taking the multiple, pressing challenges facing mental health, community, acute and ambulance services.

“They include concerns over winter pressures, a soaring cost-of-living crisis, further waves of Covid-19, seasonal flu, and the very worrying possibility of industrial action by NHS staff over pay and conditions.

“Our frontline staff have done a sterling job reducing the longest waits for care and ramping up activity but with over 6.7mn people waiting for planned treatment and the numbers continuing to rise, these challenges could derail the NHS’ efforts to bear down on care backlogs.

“Urgent and emergency care is under constant strain with long waits in extremely busy A&E departments and ambulance services severely stretched.

“These pressures have been compounded by delays in discharging patients who are well enough to continue their recovery at or closer to home, with shortages of social care staff and funding shortfalls a key issue.

“The new Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street today and pledged to put the NHS on a ‘firm footing’.

“We hope that she, and the new Health and Social Care Secretary, will not duck these big issues and work with those on the frontline to deliver solutions.”

Average ambulance response time in England for category 1 (urgent) incidents
(PA Graphics)

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, added: “Our 23rd health secretary has inherited an NHS and social care system in a worst state than in living memory.

“GP appointments, cancer treatments, and diagnostic tests are all above pre-pandemic levels, and patients who had waited the longest for an elective procedure have now received one.

“However, demand for frontline care is through the roof, waiting time standards are deteriorating despite the heroic efforts of its staff, and winter seems set to be the busiest on record.

“These concerns are made significantly more worrying by the cost-of-living crisis and so, like the rest of the country we are eager to understand the detail of the Government’s promised intervention this week.”

Professor Philip Banfield, council chair at the British Medical Association, said: “Ms Coffey takes office at a time of greater crisis in the NHS than any of her predecessors.

“Ahead of another perilous winter for our health service, she has a unique opportunity to change the trajectory of the NHS for the better.

“Staff feel overwhelmed and consistently let down by governments who had it in their power to really help them – and our patients. Enough is enough. Things must be different this time, and the Government must now work with the medical profession and its trade union to effect concrete change for the future of the NHS and its patients.”

Pat Cullen, general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Ms Coffey must buck the trend of her predecessors and listen to nursing staff. Our ask for professional and personal support cannot afford to fall on deaf ears – doing the right thing by nurses is the right thing by patients too.

“The workforce crisis cannot be the elephant in the room any longer – politicians skirt around the issue but, without enough staff, new promises will not be deliverable.

“A simple way to recruit and retain nursing staff – and to keep patients safe – is to pay them fairly for the invaluable work they do.

“Next week we will post strike ballot papers to 300,000 nursing staff across the UK. After many years of underinvestment, they are standing up for patients and themselves.”