Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holding emergency talks with health leaders at Downing Street in bid to ease winter NHS crisis

Rishi Sunak held emergency talks with health leaders in an attempt to alleviate the winter crisis in the NHS.

The Prime Minister hosted experts including England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty and NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard in Downing Street on Saturday, January 7. But he was warned that the rare weekend meeting was unlikely to ease the pressure on frontline services, blamed on “years of inaction”.

Senior doctors say the NHS is on a knife edge, with many A&E units struggling to keep up with demand and trusts and ambulance services declaring critical incidents. A wave of strikes and high levels of flu and coronavirus cases are adding to huge pressures in the health service.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Discharge rates fell to a new low in England last week, with only a third of patients ready to be released from hospital actually leaving.

Consultant physician James Dunbar told reporters he was “confident that action will be taken” but not optimistic the crisis would be dealt with before spring. Leaving the NHS Recovery Forum, he said: “These are difficult problems to fix though, so I think it’s unlikely we’ll have it sorted by the end of this winter.”

“A lot of” senior clinical leaders taking part were “saying the same thing”, Dr Dunbar continued. He then added: “The Prime Minister seemed to understand that.”

Decades of underinvestment

The focus is on four crucial issues: social care and delayed discharge, urgent and emergency care, elective care and primary care.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has urged health leaders at an emergency meeting to take "bold and radical" action to alleviate the winter crisis in the NHS. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said there are “no silver bullets” to solve the crisis after “decades of underinvestment”. He explained : “This crisis has been a decade or more in the making and we are now paying the high price for years of inaction and managed decline. Patients are experiencing delays that we haven’t seen for years.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“High levels of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and rising Covid levels are exacerbating the problem but the cause is decades of underinvestment in staffing, capital and the lack of a long-term solution to the capacity crunch facing social care. None of these problems can be solved tomorrow.”

The Prime Minister this week made reducing NHS waiting lists one of his key pledges over the next two years.

Attendees at the meeting included chief executives and clinical leaders from NHS organisations and councils from across the country, as well as experts from medical royal colleges and independent sector organisations working in health and social care services.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.
Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A Downing Street spokeswoman said “easing the immediate pressures whilst also focusing on the long-term improvement of the NHS” are among Mr Sunak’s key commitments.

“That’s why we’re bringing together the best minds from the health and care sectors to help share knowledge and practical solutions so that we can tackle the most crucial challenges such as delayed discharge and emergency care,” she added

“We want to correct the unwarranted variation in NHS performance between local areas, because no matter where you live you should be able to access quality healthcare.”

‘Patients deserve more’

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Sir Chris Whitty, England's Chief Medical Officer arrives in Downing Street, London, to discuss how to improve NHS performance. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “After 13 years of mismanaging the NHS, this is the equivalent of the arsonists convening a forum with the fire brigade to put out the inferno they started. Patients deserve more than a talking shop.

“Clinical leaders and health experts have been sounding the alarm for months about the crisis the NHS is facing, so why has it taken so long for Rishi Sunak and Steve Barclay to decide to listen to them?”

Mr Streeting said the £500million for delayed discharges promised by the Government is “yet to reach the front line and is now too late to make a difference this winter”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

NHS Confederation chief Mr Taylor said the investment came “too late to have maximum impact this winter”.

On Monday, Health Secretary Steve Barclay will meet union leaders to discuss NHS pay for the next financial year in talks that are unlikely to avert planned strikes.

A Department of Health and Social Care source said the Health Secretary plans to host an “honest and constructive conversation about what is affordable for NHS pay in the coming year”.