NHS 'winter crisis' will continue through summer, BMA warns

Pressure on the NHS through summer 2018 could match levels that prompted the Red Cross to warn that the health service faced a 'humanitarian crisis' last winter, the BMA has warned.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul (Photo: JH Lancy)
BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul (Photo: JH Lancy)

A forecast based on official data from the past five years shows that in a best-case scenario, levels of pressure on the health service look set to match the 2015/16 winter.

In a worst-case scenario, A&E attendances, waiting times and admissions could continue at a level similar to the 2016/17 winter - which brought a warning at the time from the British Red Cross that the NHS was facing a 'humanitarian crisis'.

GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline that year-round pressure on the health service left GP practices ‘unable to pause for breath’.

The forecast comes after soaring levels of pressure on the NHS throughout the 2017/18 winter that saw elective care suspended for a month, with many hospitals operating with bed occupancy rates well above safe limits.

NHS pressure

Overflowing hospitals and soaring flu rates through winter have seen GPs under extreme pressure - and the BMA forecast suggests workload in primary care could be pushed up throughout the year by problems across the wider NHS.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: 'This data clearly shows what doctors working on the front line have been saying for some time – that the "winter crisis" has truly been replaced by a year-round crisis.

'Doctors and patients have just endured one of the worst winters on record, resulting in thousands of cancelled operations, unacceptable long waits to be seen and people who are already at their most vulnerable having to face the indignity of being treated in hospital corridors.

'These scenes have become an all-too-familiar annual occurrence, each year stretching further into spring and appearing again earlier the next winter. We cannot accept that this is the new normal for the NHS.'

Dr Nagpaul said winter funding worth £335m announced by the Treasury in November was a 'temporary sticking plaster' that came too late.

NHS funding

He added: 'The BMA estimates that health funding in England is more than £7bn a year behind comparable European countries and this could rise to over £11bn over the next three years.'

The BMA chair said he welcomed a recent commitment from prime minister Theresa May to develop a 'long-term funding plan' for the NHS, but warned that this 'must be met with the reality of urgent and tangible new investment that will properly address the year-round pressures faced by the health service'.

The worst-case scenario for July, August and September 2018 predicted by the BMA could see the NHS facing 6.2m A&E attendances, 774,000 waits over four hours at A&E and 1.57m emergency admissions.

GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘This analysis clearly demonstrates the need for a whole-year response to the workload crisis faced not just in A+E but by GP practices across the country.

‘It means practices can't pause for breath, as the workload pressures remain high throughout the year, leaving GPs and their staff burnt-out as a result. The winter indemnity scheme provided some recognition of the pressures on GPs in out-of-hours settings but that scheme ends in a few days time with the risk that many out-of-hours organisations will not be unable to recruit sufficient staff to cope with patient demand. Ultimately this all impacts on patient care.’

An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘The NHS has faced continued pressure after one of the coldest March months in 30 years. Over the decade ahead our health service is inevitably going to have to respond to the needs of our growing and ageing population, which is why now charting a ten-year plan for the NHS makes such sense.’

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