Employment

'Entirely predictable' NHS staff crisis risks derailing plan to tackle 5.8 million patient backlog

Addressing NHS staff shortages is the single most important thing the government must do to address the record 5.8 million patient backlog, say MPs.

One in ten NHS staff were absent on New Year's Eve. Image: Unsplash / @reoutput

The government’s attempts to deal with a record 5.8 million patients on NHS waiting lists risk being derailed by the crisis in emergency care, a damning report by MPs has declared.

Members of the Health and Social Care Committee found staff shortages are the greatest issue faced by the NHS, and without addressing the problem, the health service will not be able to clear the backlog of patients caused by the pandemic.

The report comes as the NHS faces it’s ‘busiest week’ of the year amid a staffing crisis caused by Covid.

Health and Social Care Committee chair Jeremy Hunt said: “The NHS faces an unquantifiable challenge in tackling a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic, with 5.8 million patients waiting for planned care and estimates that the figure could double by 2025.  

“However, our report finds the government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis. The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem, but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce, 93,000 NHS vacancies and no sign of any plan to address this.   

“Far from tackling the backlog, the NHS will be able to deliver little more than day to day firefighting unless the government wakes up to the scale of the staffing crisis facing the NHS, and urgently develops a long-term plan to fix the issue.” 

Waiting times in October were the worst since records began, with one in four patients waiting longer than four hours to be admitted, transferred or discharged and trolley waits at a record high. October also saw the highest number of 999 calls on record. 

It also states: “During our inquiry, we heard many times that workforce shortages were the “key limiting factor” on success in tackling the backlog… Without better short and long term workforce planning, we do not believe the 9 million additional checks, tests and treatments will be deliverable.”

The report goes on to note the government voted against an addition to the Health and Care Bill that would mandate workforce planning. 

“This creates a gap between ministerial rhetoric about supporting frontline staff and refusal in practice to do the biggest single long-term change that would relieve the pressure they face,” it states.

Almost six million people are waiting for planned care as of September 2021, the highest level since records began and includes 300,000 who have waited more than a year. 

Over ten thousand patients have waited more than two years for their treatment.

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Boris Johnson has promised daily lateral flow tests for 100,000 “critical workers” in England “to help keep essential services and supply chains running,” but has not confirmed whether this would include NHS staff. More than 1.3 million people work for the NHS.

Responding to the report, union Unison slated the government for refusing to address the staffing crisis.

“The government showed blatant disregard for the early warning signs, and its continued refusal to publish an independent assessment of workforce numbers counts as wilful negligence,” said Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison. 

“A properly-funded staffing plan is the single most important step ministers can take to relieve pressures over the next few years.”

More than 20 NHS Trusts have now declared a critical incident over Covid, rising from six in 24 hours. This means that they have officially acknowledged their hospitals won’t be able to provide the quality of care that they want – without additional staff from other services. 

Pat Cullen, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing labelled the report as “damning” and said “many more (staff) are at risk of leaving as they lose faith in the government’s willingness to ‘grip’ the situation”.

MPs launched an inquiry into the staffing crisis in November 2021 to figure out why health care staff are leaving the NHS and what can be done to attract new doctors and nurses.

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