Government told to 'wake up' over NHS staff crisis as MPs highlight pressure on GPs

Government plans to clear the NHS backlog triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic could fail unless it 'wakes up to the scale of the staffing crisis' facing the health service, a report from MPs warns.

Health and social care select committee chair Jeremy Hunt
Health and social care select committee chair Jeremy Hunt (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

A report from the House of Commons health and social care select committee calls on the government and NHS England to 'produce a broader national health and care recovery plan by April 2022, that goes beyond the elective backlog to emergency care, mental health, primary care, community care and social care'.

It highlights surging demand for GP services triggered by the pandemic, with practices delivering more appointments in recent months than in equivalent months in 2019 - with tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccinations administered on top of this increased workload.

Following intense criticism of general practice from politicians and parts of the media over access to face-to-face appointments - despite more than half of GP appointments being delivered in person since the pandemic began - the report rejects any 'numerical target for the proportion of appointments carried out remotely in general practice'.

NHS workforce

It repeats calls made previously by the committee for an overhaul of NHS workforce planning and for a clear evaluation of whether enough staff are being trained to meet demand for the coming years - and warns that the staffing crisis now facing the NHS amid soaring rates of COVID-19 infection was 'entirely predictable'.

The report comes as GPs warned that the general practice workforce had been 'shredded' by the rise in staff absences as the Omicron variant of coronavirus drove a record surge in daily cases. The committee said the current wave had exacerbated an existing chronic staff shortage, citing evidence from the RCGP that 'we simply do not have enough GPs to meet the needs of a growing and ageing population, with increasingly complex needs, on top of managing the fallout from the pandemic'.

Health and social care committee chair Jeremy Hunt said: 'The NHS faces an unquantifiable challenge in tackling a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic, with 5.8m patients waiting for planned care and estimates that the figure could double by 2025.

'However, our report finds that the government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis. The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem, but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce, 93,000 NHS vacancies and no sign of any plan to address this.

COVID-19 backlog

'Far from tackling the backlog, the NHS will be able to deliver little more than day-to-day firefighting unless the government wakes up to the scale of the staffing crisis facing the NHS, and urgently develops a long-term plan to fix the issue.'

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said the NHS backlog was driving up pressure across the health service, with GPs caring for patients during long waits for hospital treatment or operations. He warned that 'relentless and escalating workload' in general practice was taking its toll on GPs' health and wellbeing.

He said: 'Current NHS pressures are not confined to hospitals. GPs and our teams have been at the forefront of delivering safe and appropriate care throughout the pandemic, ensuring patients receive the care and services they have needed whilst leading complex mass vaccination programmes.

'However, as serious and acute the problem of the COVID-related backlog is, the key issues facing the NHS pre-date the pandemic. GPs and our teams were caring for patients under intense workload and workforce pressures before COVID-19, and the crisis has only exacerbated these.'

Staffing crisis

BMA deputy chair Dr David Wrigley said the report made clear 'what a gargantuan challenge the NHS faces'. He added: 'The biggest barrier to tackling the backlog caused by the pandemic is a severe staffing crisis and our calls for improved workforce planning have thankfully been heard. It’s now time for the government to listen too.'

He said that 'transparent and open forecasting' was the only way the NHS could have a 'realistic prospect of both recruiting and retaining enough staff to provide the required levels of care in the long term' - and welcomed the committee's rejection of targets for face-to-face and remote GP consultations, as well as calls for investment to improve digital and tech capacity in the NHS.

He added: 'The immense challenges facing the NHS this winter means it’s even more important that doctors and all frontline and clinical staff can devote their time, energy and expertise to the delivery of care and must not be expected to participate in non-essential or back-office programmes.'

BMA leaders called last year for the government to be 'honest' over the GP workforce - with politicians repeatedly claiming the workforce has increased despite data showing a decline in the number of fully-qualified, full-time equivalent GPs over recent years. Sajid Javid admitted in evidence to the health and social care select committee that the government was not on track to deliver its election pledge to increase the FTE GP workforce by 6,000 by 2024.

A DHSC spokesperson said: 'The pandemic has put enormous pressures on the NHS but we are committed to supporting hardworking staff to ensure people get the treatment they need.

'We have provided an additional £5.9bn to help tackle the backlogs and we are investing £36bn over three years which will help deliver an extra 9m checks, scans and operations for patients.'

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