MPs demand urgent action on NHS backlog and routine COVID-19 tests for staff

MPs have demanded urgent action to prevent avoidable harm to patients from the NHS backlog triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic - and set a one-month deadline for the government to explain its failure to roll out routine testing for healthcare staff.

Health and social care committee chair Jeremy Hunt (Photo: JH Lancy)
Health and social care committee chair Jeremy Hunt (Photo: JH Lancy)

A report on 'Delivering core NHS and care services during the pandemic and beyond' from the influential health and social care select committee warns that the pandemic has had an understandable impact on NHS services, but that some patients' experience of healthcare has been 'unacceptably poor'.

The report demands answers from the government on tackling the NHS backlog, plans for routine testing of NHS staff, plans to support the mental and physical wellbeing of health and care staff through 'sustained workplace pressure due to the pandemic', and a review of technology adopted in recent months.

It also condemns racism and discrimination experienced by NHS staff - demanding further action to ensure that 'all NHS staff - regardless of their race, ethnicity or cultural heritage - feel safe, confident and proud to work for the NHS'. The report demands from NHS England 'a full and comprehensive definition of the “racism and discrimination” that it seeks to eradicate' - and demands a strategy to tackle it - including targets and deadlines - by the end of 2020.

COVID-19 impact

The committee's report demands an update from the DHSC on actions taken and planned 'to quantify and address the overall impact of the pandemic on waiting times, the backlog of appointments and pent-up, and as yet unknown and unmet patient demand for all health services, specifically across cancer treatments, mental health services, dentistry services, GP services and elective surgery'.

It highlights a warning from NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens in evidence earlier this year to the committee that he expected waiting times for and referrals to core services to rise 'quite significantly over the second half of the year'.

GPonline has reported previously on warnings from GPs and charities that patients have been waiting more than a month for urgent cancer checks as care was delayed during the pandemic, while millions of patients have faced extended waits for treatment or scans.

The report warns that 'the case for routine testing of all NHS staff in all parts of the country (including clinical staff as well as cleaners, porters and so forth) is compelling and should be introduced as quickly as capacity allows and before the winter-flu season begins'.

Routine staff testing

It demands a response from CMO Professor Chris Whitty on whether he has advised the government that this should be rolled out - and asks 'if not, why'.

MPs also call in the report for answers by the end of October from the government on capacity available for testing NHS staff, how much capacity would be required and when it can be delivered.

Health and social care committee chair and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said: 'We are proud of the heroic contribution made by frontline NHS and care staff during this pandemic, which has saved many lives. Thanks to their efforts not a single coronavirus patient has been denied an intensive care bed or ventilator unlike in other countries.

'However the pandemic has also massively impacted normal NHS services, something that could have been mitigated with earlier infection control measures in hospitals and clearer communication to patients whose care was disrupted. Weekly testing of NHS staff has been repeatedly promised in hotspot areas - but is still not being delivered. Failure to do so creates a real risk that the NHS will be forced to retreat into being a largely COVID-only service during a second spike.

'We've heard of severe disruption to services, especially cancer, and here we could be looking at tens of thousands avoidable deaths within a year. If we’re to avoid this going forward it is time to give as much priority to avoiding harm and death caused by the interruption of normal NHS services and introduce mass testing for all NHS staff. Today we set out these and other steps the government and NHS leaders must take to manage services through a second wave.'

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