Lack of health and social care funding is driving year-round capacity strain
Funding pressures and demographic shifts mean the NHS now faces winter-type pressures all year round, according to new analysis by the Financial Times.
It has always been the case that the health service faced some capacity strain during the winter months, because of higher levels of flu, respiratory illness and vomiting bugs.
However, the service now exists in a state of ‘permanent winter’, with serious capacity strain all year round, translating into longer waiting times, cancelled operations and declining patient outcomes.
While the government has insisted that growing pressures are the result of an aging population, this is clearly misrepresentative.
As the FT analysis shows, the increased pressure on acute hospital services is directly connected to cuts in other areas, including social care and other NHS service areas, including mental health, general practice and district nursing.
As a result, people who should be receiving care elsewhere in the community are being sent to hospital instead, or being kept in hospital longer than is required because there’s nowhere to discharge them too. This blocks beds, meaning that those requiring care that can only be provided in hospitals — such as cancer treatment — are more likely to face delays.
Indeed, the FT shows that performance on critical cancer targets has plummeted in the last four years.
Also today, the BMA has released figures showing that despite rising demand, the number of overnight hospitals beds has decreased by a fifth since 2006/7, with a 44 per cent decrease in the number of mental health beds.
‘The UK already has the second lowest number of hospital beds per head in Europe per head,’ commented BMA chair Dr Mark Porter. ‘These figures paint an even bleaker picture of an NHS that is at breaking point.’
Beyond direct patient impacts, ‘permanent winter’ also has serious implications for NHS staff. Previously, while winter was a period of high pressure, staff had stretches of respite on either side. Now, NHS workers are already exhausted and overwhelmed as they face into seasonal spikes.
Given all this, it’s unsurprising that the Jeremy Hunt has gone quiet on the seven-day NHS. As the president of the Royal College of Physicians puts it, staff are dealing with ‘the spectre of having to provide a seven-day service . . . when we can barely staff a five-day one’.
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