Whitty warns NHS will face ‘exceptionally difficult’ winter with no Covid an ‘impossible dream’

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Chief medical officer Chris Whitty says the NHS faces a serious threat this winter  (Getty Images)
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty says the NHS faces a serious threat this winter (Getty Images)

England’s top doctor has warned the health service will face an “exceptionally difficult” winter as demand pressures on the NHS add up.

Speaking to the Royal College of GPs annual conference in Liverpool today, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty spelled out “the tall order” facing the NHS in the coming months.

He said it was an “impossible dream” to go through winter without any Covid pressures on the NHS and he warned the country was not far off a really serious situation.

His comments come as The Independent reported yesterday a patient waited 13 hours in the back of an ambulance as hospitals across the country put in place emergency measures to cope with record levels of demand.

New NHS statistics today show almost a million 999 calls were made in September and A&E units have seen their busiest September ever.

Addressing the conference, Prof Whitty said: “The winter as a whole, I regret to say, is going to be exceptionally difficult for the NHS” and he added “general practice is going to be absolutely at the forefront of this, unfortunately.”

He said this will be the reality “irrespective of whether we have a relatively low but non trivial amount of Covid, or whether we actually have a further surge in the winter.”

While he said the exact modelling was uncertain he was confident the dire situation faced last winter would not happen, describing the “top end risks” for the country being much lower than previously.

But he warned Covid numbers could still rise saying: “We're only two to three doubling times away from really quite serious pressure on the NHS, and it's already serious, but one that would actually be very difficult to deal with.

“So the margin of error is quite small. Zero Covid over this winter is a completely impossible dream, except in the minds of a few, but it is an impossible dream let me be clear about that.”

He said officials were hoping they could keep the numbers to “relatively low levels” but he said there were other threats such as a flu resurgence.

Many people were still not meeting as many other people as was normal two years “so maybe that’ll hold the line” but he added: “We have less natural immunity in the system so we could have a really serious spike and we could have a flu vaccine that's not very well matched to the flu, because there hasn't been enough flu circulating in the southern hemisphere to get a proper fix on this.”

He added there were other serious infections circulating as well on top of usual winter pressures from heart disease and slips, trips and falls.

“If you layer all of that on top of one another and then you add on the fact there's no doubt that we're now seeing, as we knew from the beginning would happen, people who delayed coming to see doctors, coming at a later stage of their disease, and therefore more seriously ill.

“The fact that we've got to catch up on things like screening, and we've got to maintain the vaccination momentum. That's an extraordinarily tall order when you add all of those up.”

But he said the country was in a much better place due to the actions of GPs and other health professionals.

“We are definitely not out of the woods yet. But where we would have been if general practice had not done what it has would be catastrophically worse.”

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