Call for long-term plan as doctors warn £5.4bn NHS cash 'will soon run out'

Doctors' leaders have warned that a £5.4bn NHS cash injection over the next six months will run out fast in the face of a 'gargantuan' COVID-19 backlog - and called for a sustained funding increase as part of a longer-term strategy.

The government said on Monday that the NHS would receive an extra £5.4bn over the coming six months to support the pandemic response and to help bring down record waiting lists.

The funding package includes £1bn to help tackle the COVID-19 backlog, £2.8bn to cover 'related costs such as enhanced infection control measures' and £478m to maintain a hospital discharge programme that has been running since April.

Total spending on COVID-19 so far in 2021 now comes to 'over £34bn' this year, the government says.

COVID-19 backlog

However, the BMA warned the cash promised by the government would 'soon run out'. It warned that the NHS backlog would take 'years, not months' to work through - and demanded a sustained increase in funding to support the health service to recover.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul warned that millions of elective procedures and outpatient appointments had been delayed by the pandemic, leaving GPs facing demand that is 'at an all time high' - and that the health service would soon face even more intense pressure with the arrival of winter.

Ahead of the government's funding announcement, the Health Foundation's REAL Centre warned that the cost of tackling the COVID-19 backlog could be around £17bn over the rest of this parliament.

However, it warned that this estimate did not include the cost of the 'ongoing impact of COVID-19 on NHS productivity, and the additional investment that may be needed in primary and community services to support the recovery' - and that the true total cost could be far higher.

Workforce shortages

Even with new funding, however, it warned that 'while major workforce shortages persist' the health service's ability to work through the backlog would be hampered.

Announcing the funding, health and social care secretary Sajid Javid said: 'The NHS has been phenomenal as it has faced one of the biggest challenges in its history.

'Today’s additional £5.4bn funding over the next six months is critical to ensuring the health service has what it needs to manage the ongoing pandemic and helping to tackle waiting lists.

'We know waiting lists will get worse before they get better as people come forward for help, and I want to reassure you the NHS is open, and we are doing what we can to support the NHS to deliver routine operations and treatment to patients across the country.'

NHS waiting list

BMA chair Dr Nagpaul said: 'This additional money is welcome as a first step to deal with immediate pressures. However the scale of the backlog is gargantuan and unprecedented in the history of the NHS. There are 5.45m people on the waiting list compared to 4m before the pandemic, with projections suggesting it could reach 13m.'

He added that the number of patients waiting more than a year for hospital treatment was now 304,803 - 208 times higher than before the pandemic and warned that with an estimated shortfall of 3.66m elective procedures and 28.35m outpatient attendances between April 2020 and June 2021, demands on general practice were now 'at an all time high'.

He said: 'It will take years - not months - to clear this backlog, in addition to concerns of new winter pressures ahead. The NHS already had major infrastructure problems before the pandemic. What the NHS desperately needs from this government is long-term sustained funding to give us the capacity to address the totality of this backlog plus give the NHS a chance to meet ongoing health needs of our nation.

'At best this announcement allows for a start to what is needed, but it will soon run out. We need to have continued funding and a backlog reduction strategy that spans the years to come.'

NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor warned ahead of the funding announcment that the NHS faced huge extra costs. He said the £17bn estimate from the REAL Centre over this parliament was 'the minimum needed to clear the backlog'.

Mr Taylor warned: 'On top of this, the NHS is facing almost £5bn of extra day-to-day running costs. The frontline NHS will need an extra £10bn next year alone to avoid cuts to patient services. This funding is in addition to the costs of delivering the government’s key manifesto commitments of building 40 new hospitals and reforming our overstretched social care system, as well as meeting the ongoing central government bill for COVID-19 activities like Test and Trace and vaccination.'

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