Suspension of routine GP referrals to struggling hospitals - already in force in parts of England - also look set to continue under plans outlined by the health secretary.
In an urgent statement to the House of Commons on Monday afternoon Mr Hunt set out a series of measures to relieve current pressures on services.
Mr Hunt’s statement came after the Red Cross was called in by some NHS trusts to help relieve what it called a ‘humanitarian crisis’ facing hospitals and ambulance services over the winter. The health secretary has said that seven-day GP services could be part of the solution to the crisis in hospitals.
Mr Hunt told MPs the service was doing better than last winter with problems at a small number of trusts. But, he warned, more cold weather and spikes in flu and respiratory infections could present further challenges.
NHS England and NHS Improvement, he said, would ‘consider a series of further measures that may be taken in particularly distressed systems on a temporary basis at the discretion of local clinical leaders’.
He added: ‘These may include temporarily releasing time for GPs to support urgent care work, clinically triaging non-urgent calls to the ambulance service for residents of nursing and residential homes before they are taken to hospital, continuing to suspend elective care including where appropriate suspension of non-urgent elective outpatient appointments, working with the CQC on rapid reinspection when this has the potential to reopen community health and social care bed capacity, working with community trusts and community nursing teams to speed up discharge.’
Mr Hunt said the measures would give the NHS the capacity it needed to take further measures as needed.
The health secretary said the A&E service needed to be used appropriately and that the NHS would ensure there were better alternative options for patients to be treated elsewhere where apporpriate.
Earlier, GP leaders revealed that practices in some areas have been told by trusts to stop routine referrals as hospitals struggle to cope with demand.
GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline that GPs in many areas had received messages from hospitals and community nursing providers advising practices of ‘significant pressures’ and ‘in some cases saying that they cannot accept routine referrals’.
‘This leaves GPs in very difficult situations with limited or no options to refer patients in need to. The scale of the problem seems far worse than we've seen in recent years.'
The Red Cross has called on the government to properly fund health and care services with a focus on prevention. British Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson said the NGO, which provides support to under-pressure NHS trusts, was seeing patients sent home from hospital without appropriate care and support.