Parliament should be recalled without delay to address a "broken" NHS, doctors' leaders demanded, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak vowed cutting waits in the health service would be one of his five priorities in the coming months.
Politicians should put aside tribal election-based strategies and establish a cross-party group for "fixing" the crisis in health and social care, the Doctors' Association UK (DAUK) urged.
In an open letter to Mr Sunak, it said that up to 500 people were dying each week due to delays in emergency care and that even veteran staff were reporting the worst winter conditions they had ever seen within the service.
Calling for an increase to NHS funding, the letter to the Prime Minister outlined the current scenario where "Patients are waiting over 12 hours to be seen in emergency departments; consultations are taking place in the back of ambulances and in corridors due to bottlenecks in the system that impact on patient flow". Meanwhile, in community settings, "GPs are consulting with seven million people per week, dealing with patients who are getting sicker and sicker as they wait months for operations – and in some cases driving patients to hospital themselves due to ambulance delays".
The letter said that contrary to reports from Mr Sunak's office at Number 10, "the NHS does not have enough money" and that patients were dying needlessly because of "an abject refusal to invest the sums needed to pay staff and provide social care". Comments by Number 10 that the Prime Minister was "confident" that the health service was getting the funding it needed were widely reported yesterday. But speaking this afternoon, Mr Sunak insisted that his Government was "taking urgent action" in areas including A&E, the ambulance service, and social care.
Addressing an audience in East London, the Prime Minister pledged to "halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists, and stop the boats [containing immigrants to the UK]". He also promised a "reasonable dialogue" with unions taking or considering strike action in pursuit of pay demands.
In further comments, the Prime Minister said: "We will always protect the founding principles of an NHS free at the point of use. But what it does mean is an NHS where patients are in control with as much choice as possible, where we’re comfortable with the NHS using more independent capacity, if that’s what it takes to get patients quicker and better care."
Parliament is currently in recess until 9 January, but the DAUK said MPs should be summoned to return early for an emergency debate on the issues hitting the NHS. It also called for an all-party parliamentary group to be established to explore ways that the problems could be alleviated.
Among other actions called for by the doctors' representative group were:
- Increase social care funding and care sector wages to retain staff, in order to reduce the discharge delays from NHS hospitals
- More funding for primary care
- Streamlining the visa system for international medical staff, to help ease bureaucracy and recruit doctors and nurses from overseas more easily
- End hospital parking charges for patients and staff
Key issues cited for addressing the NHS staffing shortfall included giving EU doctors and other healthcare professionals permanent residence status, increasing training numbers for senior doctors, committing to full pay restoration for junior doctors, and scrapping the "unfair" immigration surcharge for those coming to work in the NHS from abroad.
Doctors Share 'Harrowing' Accounts from the Frontline
The DAUK said already in 2023 it was receiving reports from "seasoned" NHS staff about conditions faced by health service professionals and patients. One emergency department doctor said they had become acquainted with the term 'reverse boarding', which involved removing a patient from a resuscitation area "and placing them on a corridor so that a more critical patient can take their place"; an off-duty doctor described how their own mother was nursed on a trolley for 18 hours before being treated on a ward for hospital acquired pneumonia and heart and kidney failure; and a GP in Manchester who said that because of long ambulance waits staff had resorted to transporting patients to hospital themselves.
Dr Matt Kneale, co-chair of DAUK and a junior doctor in the North-West of England, said: "Consecutive governments have done less than the bare minimum and the NHS has been running on fumes.
"It is no longer possible for the goodwill of NHS workers to be abused to prop up a failed system. It is frankly of little surprise that concurrent crises have led to record levels of burnout amongst staff, and a capacity crisis on the frontlines of emergency departments, general practice, and ambulance services."
Meanwhile, pharmacists have reported "huge demand" for their services because of winter pressures on the health system.
Pharmacists Feeling the Pressure
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) said that pharmacy teams needed more Government support because of an increase in the number of people asking for help. "Staffing pressures, alongside an increase in workload, create an extra burden which takes a toll on the wellbeing of pharmacy teams," said Thorrun Govind, chair of the RPS. She explained: "Issues such as medicine shortages can also take up many hours of time for pharmacy teams tracking down medicines when they could be directly helping patients. In community pharmacies, rising costs and fairly static funding are adding to business pressures."