Care ‘traffic control’ centres to speed up discharge, additional ambulance hours and extra beds are part of wide-ranging plans to prepare for winter, the NHS have announced.
The robust new measures, due to be set out at the NHS England board meeting in Birmingham today, will boost capacity and resilience across the NHS as well as building on the recent improvements in ambulance response times and A&E performance.
Winter preparations have been well underway since the publication of the NHS’s Urgent and Emergency Care Recovery Plan, with over 800 new ambulances set to be in place to deliver over a million more ambulance road hours as well as 5,000 more sustainable hospital beds and hundreds of new virtual ward beds each month.
The NHS will also be announcing a new scheme to encourage local teams to ‘overachieve’ on performance measures with financial incentives provided for these areas.
With more than 12,000 patients every day in hospital despite being medically fit for discharge, a nationwide rollout of ‘care traffic control’ centres will provide one stop for staff to locate and co-ordinate the best and quickest discharge options for patients – either at home or into social or community care.
The centres will bring together teams from across NHS, social care, housing, and voluntary services in one place to help make live decisions and offer patients everything they need in one place.
Around a quarter of local areas currently offer this service 12 hours a day, seven days a week and this is set to expand to every area of the country by winter.
Drawing information from electronic patient records to track patients and link up with housing services, it is expected a third of patients could be discharged using this model by December.
At the monthly board meeting the NHS also outlined how it is bracing for another winter facing the possibility of higher than usual levels of respiratory illness including Covid, flu and RSV. Australia, whose activity often predicts what the NHS in England is likely to see in winter, is experiencing one of the biggest flu seasons on record with children particularly affected, making up four in five of flu-related hospital admissions.
The use of Acute Respiratory Hubs – where patients can get urgent same-day face-to-face assessment for conditions like Covid, flu and RSV will also be expanded to be available in every part of the country. Last winter, when first introduced, almost 730,000 patients used these services, helping to speed up access to care and advice while reducing wider system pressures.
With high levels of bed occupancy all year around, hospitals are putting more beds in place for patients and are on track to hit 5,000 additional ‘core’ permanent general and acute beds. Thanks to the efforts of the NHS, more than 99,000 core beds will be in place across the country by December 2023 – thousands more than last year, to boost resilience.
£250 million of funding has been invested since the UEC recovery plan was published to boost capacity and speed up discharge, with local NHS areas are on track to create an additional 900 beds. At George Eliot Hospital, the additional funding has been used to build two new modular wards and 60 new beds ahead of the busy winter months while Leicester is in the process of rolling out three new wards, a total of 76 new beds, to reduce overcrowding in A&E, cut ambulance handover delays and speed up response times for patients.
Local NHS teams will focus on preparations across a variety of services including mental health, with plans to be put in place to strengthen ambulance response to mental health calls, to raise the profile of all-age 24/7 urgent mental health helplines and to avoid long lengths of stay in mental health inpatient settings.
Sarah-Jane Marsh, NHS national director of urgent and emergency care, said:
“Winter is always a busy time for the NHS and our teams are already under significant pressure – so today, we are launching a plan to further increase resilience across the country.
“Thanks to the hard work that goes on day in day out and the ambitious measures in our urgent and emergency care recovery plan, patients are seeing significant improvements in ambulance and A&E services over recent months.
“Ahead of winter we will not only have more ambulances and beds in place, but we will also be continuing to work more closely as an entire NHS and social care system, increasing the capacity of community services that help keep patients safe at home.
“We will continue to build on this progress and do everything we can to put the NHS on the front foot ahead of what has the potential to be another challenging winter with covid and flu.”
Health Minister Helen Whately said:
“The government is working closely with the NHS and social care to prepare for next winter.
“Our Urgent and Emergency Care Recovery Plan, backed by record funding, has already improved A&E performance and ambulance response times. Thanks to that plan the NHS is getting 800 new ambulances, 5,000 extra hospital beds and 10,000 virtual ward beds.
“Getting ready for winter early goes hand in hand with cutting NHS waiting times – one of the government’s top five priorities.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said:
“Health leaders will be grateful for the clarity this plan provides and will do all they can to help realise its aims, to build further capacity and resilience.
“The plan is based on sound evidence of what works, backed by data and learning from the last few winters. Its publication now, in summer, will give the health service a timely opportunity to prepare for what will likely be an extremely challenging winter.”