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UK PM Sunak to meet health service leaders as crisis drags on

FILE PHOTO: Ambulance workers strike over pay, in London

LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will on Saturday meet leaders of England's health service, as it faces one of its toughest ever winters as flu and COVID-19 spread amid strike action by frontline staff who say high inflation has eroded their salaries.

Ambulances have been queuing outside hospitals, facing long waits to hand over patients to emergency wards as doctors and nurses, hampered by worker shortages, struggle to discharge patients amid staff shortages.

Sunak's Downing Street office said Saturday's NHS (National Health Service) Recovery Forum would focus on four issues including emergency care and delayed hospital discharges into social care.

A spokesperson said easing immediate pressures on hospitals whilst also focusing on the long-term improvement of the NHS was a key aim.

"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," the spokesperson said.

Downing Street did not mention the issue of pay awards.

Britain has faced a wave of industrial action over the last few months, with strikes crippling various sectors including healthcare and set to continue as surging inflation follows more than 10 years of stagnant wage growth.

Sunak, who is under increasing pressure including from member of his Conservative Party to improve wage offers to healthcare staff, this week said reducing hospital waiting lists was one of his five priorities for Britain this year. He said this aim might take longer to achieve than some other.

The government has announced extra funding for the NHS and social care, including 500 million pounds ($600 million) for delayed discharges, though the opposition Labour Party said the money "is yet to reach the front line and is now too late to make a difference this winter."

NHS leaders have warned of unprecedented pressure from record demand on services, with statistics from the latest week showing flu cases rose by almost a half.

Health services statistics showed that more than 9 in 10 beds in hospitals were occupied in the week running up to New Year, with 13,000 beds a day taken up by patients who were medically fit to be discharged.

"We knew this winter would be one of the most difficult in the history of the NHS," said NHS national medical director Stephen Powis, adding the NHS was making "good progress to put the equivalent of 7,000 extra beds in place by March."

($1 = 0.8326 pounds)

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by John Stonestreet)