Responding to NHS England’s letter on the next steps in increasing capacity and operational resilience in urgent and emergency care ahead of winter, Professor Philip Banfield, council chair at the BMA, said:
“Staff across the NHS are already incredibly worried about what this winter will bring, so it’s important that NHS England has recognised these pressures and is looking ahead at measures which may bring some relief. While this six-point plan is a step in the right direction, it lacks detail and is missing many of the most fundamental measures that doctors know are needed to drive down waiting times and improve patient safety.
“Adding more hospital beds is crucial to increasing capacity, for example, but this promise is meaningless without the staff to treat patients in them. Likewise, suggesting working more closely with social care means nothing while there are more than a million staff vacancies across that sector alone. Staffing gaps in both health and social care must be properly addressed if anything is ever going to change.
“It is encouraging that this plan promises to recruit more call centre staff and, in general practice, social prescribing link workers and health and wellbeing coaches, but that is just not enough. We need more GPs and funding of staff to support them as primary care bears the brunt of hospital backlogs and patients that can’t access the care they need. In secondary care we need more doctors, nurses and staff that enable patients to flow through a complex system smoothly and quickly. We need less barriers and red-tape.
“Reducing wait times in emergency departments is a focus of this plan, and rightly so, but after the emergency department patients might need care elsewhere in the hospital or community, and without the staff to provide that care, such a focus is undermined.
“We’re pleased that NHS England has listened to the BMA and pledged to implement a directory of services to help patients determine whether they really need to go to emergency departments, but again, we need a full complement of staff for the health service and patients to really reap the benefits.
“Making plans this early for winter is the right thing to do. It’s a pivotal moment that NHS England has finally included mental health in their winter strategy, but we need to see the finer detail of how this plan will work and what it means for colleagues on the frontline. Frankly, it remains unbelievable that a credible longer-term workforce strategy – something the BMA has repeatedly called for – has failed to materialise. Staff are leaving in their droves as the pressures of working in the NHS become too much, and plans that only look ahead to the next few months are unlikely to encourage more to stay.
“The NHS is the people who work in it. The Government must value them by providing comprehensive plans that deliver what is needed not just in immediate future, but long after as well.”