NHS entering 'year-round crisis', BMA warns

Chronic underfunding and 'bad political choices' have left health and social care services unable to cope, with winter pressures now turning into a 'state of year-round crisis', the BMA has warned.

Last winter was among the worst on record for NHS performance despite unchallenging external factors - with mild weather in December, normal temperatures through January and no major outbreaks of flu or norovirus, the union warned.

But the NHS in England is now 'unlikely to recover from the pressure it faces during the winter', according to the BMA, with key performance targets continuing to slip. The analysis comes just a week after GPC chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul's LMC conference speech highlighted his concern over the NHS allowing its 'constitutional promise of the the 18-week target' for treatment to be breached.

Research reported by GPonline ahead of last year's RCGP annual conference showed that soaring pressure across the health service and rising acute care costs were strongly linked to 'systematic underfunding' of general practice.

NHS crisis

The latest BMA analysis of NHS data shows that almost two thirds of hospital trusts reported a major alert to warn that they could not cope on at least one day between December 2016 and mid-March 2017. The problems contributed to a surge in GP workload over the period, with practices in many areas facing additional consultations to explain delays to patients or allay fears as patients waited for hospital consultations to take place.

The BMA warned that from November 2016 to March 2017 6,708 patients were experiencing 'a delayed transfer of care' on average on any given day.

The union also highlighted longer waits for ambulances, high rates of hospital bed occupancy and long waits for A&E treatment, warning that these trends 'are only going to worsen'.

Ahead of the 8 June general election, the BMA called on politicians to invest in the medical workforce and agree a 'long-term solution to the funding, capacity and staffing challenges overwhelming the health and social care systems'.

BMA chair Dr Mark Porter said: 'These figures show that hospitals have just endured one of the worst winters on record, with patients facing unacceptably long waits for treatment. These delays are having a profound impact on patients' experience of the NHS and mean frontline staff are left working under extremely difficult conditions.

Winter pressures

'This new analysis is particularly stark because it wasn’t a bad winter in terms of external factors. The weather was mild and there were no widespread outbreaks of flu or norovirus. The pressure the NHS is under is purely down to bad political choices, with years of chronic underfunding and investment in services failing to keep up with patient demand.

'Politicians are consistently missing their own targets across the health system and the NHS is clearly at breaking point. Pressures previously only seen during the winter months are now becoming the norm year-round. Our health and social care systems can no longer cope without urgent action. In the run-up to the general election, we call on politicians of all parties not to duck this crisis any longer.'

Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: 'This is a stark reminder why the state of the NHS is one of the biggest issues in this election. The truth is seven years of underfunding in the NHS mean hospitals are now routinely too full.

'Patients deserve better. Labour is committed to investing in the NHS and social care to reduce pressures on hospitals and make sure patients never have to suffer a winter like this ever again.'

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