Plans to create 'virtual wards' and offer more support at home to the elderly and vulnerable could ease pressure on hospitals in the short-term, but ignore the pressing issue of staff shortages, the Government has been warned.
Those were among initiatives presented in a delivery plan set out by the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England to address logjams in emergency departments.
The blueprint was accompanied by a pledge to deliver 800 new ambulances, including 100 specialist mental health vehicles, and 5000 more "sustainable" hospital beds for next winter, backed by a £1 billion fund.
A core proposal to avoid up to 20% of emergency admissions would see an expansion of new services in the community providing more ‘joined-up care’ for older, frail people, and greater use of virtual wards allowing patients to be monitored from their own homes. The plan envisaged that urgent community response teams and frailty and falls services could be ready before next winter, whilst an extra 3000 beds in virtual wards on top of the 7000 already existing would provide over 10,000 in total by this autumn.
'Fastest-ever Improvement in Waiting Times': PM
Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, said: "Boosting care in the community and treating more people at home is key to recovery – it is better for patients and their families, as well as easing pressure on NHS services." On a visit to County Durham on Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised that the plan for emergency care would deliver "the largest and fastest-ever improvement in emergency waiting times in the NHS's history".
The Delivery Plan for recovering urgent and emergency care services described actions to be taken over the next 2 years, but Professor Phil Banfield, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) council warned: "The NHS cannot afford to wait 2 years for the fraction of help that the Government has proposed in this plan today." He called for immediate extra funding for the health service together with steps to retain and boost the workforce. Prof Banfield said it was "laughable that with 133,446 vacancies across the NHS, the Government still hasn’t addressed the workforce crisis", and added, "they may be able to source more ambulances, but who is going to staff them?"
NHS Providers welcomed the blueprint as "timely", but Saffron Cordery, the organisation's interim chief executive, branded them as "not enough in themselves". She said: "We desperately need action to tackle the vast workforce shortages, staff exhaustion and burnout, and the inability to free up capacity by discharging medically fit patients in a safe and timely way."
Addressing the healthcare staffing issue, the delivery plan promised to "grow the workforce with more flexible ways of working", as well as increasing the number of emergency medical technicians in 2024 to respond to incidents and support paramedics.
Hospital Discharge Strategy
A strategy to speed up hospital discharges would see £1.6 billion of already allocated money spent on initiatives such as care transfer hubs in every hospital to help ensure patients are transferred to an appropriate setting and do not remain in hospital longer than necessary.
An initiative to make NHS 111 the first port of call would be put in place, alongside making urgent mental health support available through the service.
Prof Banfield said he feared that shifting a larger proportion of care into the community would create "the same problem, just in a different place". He predicted that much of the burden for this would "likely fall to already overworked GPs and their teams" where the impact would mean "pushing up waiting times in general practice and jeopardising patient safety even further".
England's Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, will be questioned on the current state of the NHS, including strikes and pay, when he appears before the Commons Health and Social Care Committee tomorrow afternoon.