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Cameron renews pledge for seven-day NHS

Shift changes, not longer working hours, will enable the NHS to deliver a seven-day service, David Cameron has argued.

In a speech at a GP surgery in the West Midlands today, the prime minister renewed his pledge to institute a seven-day NHS, including seven-day hospital care and seven-day GP access.

He said: “While our hospitals are working hard Monday to Friday to get patients better sometimes it can feel as though Saturdays and Sundays are more about just somehow getting through to Monday.

“Diseases don’t work weekdays nine-to-five and neither can we.

“When you have sat through a night in the hospital watching a loved one and praying for the morning, when you have spent a weekend longing for the week, you know just how important these changes are.”

He added: “This isn’t about NHS staff working seven days a week. It’s about different shift patterns – so that our doctors and nurses are able to give that incredible care whenever it is needed.”

In the Q&A session after the speech, Cameron even claimed the seven-day-a-week NHS will not necessarily cost more.

He said he had seen it in action in a visit to a hospital in Salford where “scanners are working at the weekend, the MRIs are working at the weekend ... everything is working at the weekend”, and as a result costs have been reduced and a better service provided.

“Will it be easy to achieve? Of course not,” he continued. “Will it require a lot of hard work to put it in place? Yes, it will. But it’s definitely the right ambition and people shouldn’t automatically assume that working something on a seven-day-a-week basis means it’s more expensive.

“After all, huge amounts of taxpayers’ money have been put into the CAT scanners and the MRI scanners and doesn’t it make sense to ensure they are being used on a whole-week basis?”

However, in stark contrast to Cameron’s comments, Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, has warned that progress towards seven-day services may not be a priority because of cash shortages and the need to make other changes.

Speaking alongside the PM, Stevens pointed out the £30bn funding gap and said expanding services would take time.

“We’ll need careful and disciplined phasing of our ambition to expand services – be it improved cancer care, mental health, primary care, seven-day services – all of which we want to do,” he said.

Former care minister Norman Lamb MP, a Lib Dem, spoke to the Guardian before Cameron’s speech, and said that while he backed the ambition, the plans to extend services could not be delivered in the current budget.

“The idea that you can just achieve this without additional resources is just fanciful,” he said.

“No, the seven-day NHS can’t be delivered within existing resources. It needs additional resourcing. At the moment we are well staffed through five days but have a lower staffing ratio on the weekends, and that would have to change.”

Professor Chris Ham, chief executive of the King’s Fund, has also said the extra £8bn promised by Cameron for the NHS would not fund all the government’s promises. 

Unions are also cautious about the plans. Unison warned that it would ballot its members on strike action if a seven-day-a-week NHS operation was to be funded by cutting staff pay, while Dr Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, told the Independent that nurses will strike if the government tries to cut pay to deliver the seven-day NHS.

“I would particularly give a really strong warning to [health secretary Jeremy Hunt]: any attacks on unsocial hours, weekend working payments, would be strongly resisted,” he said. “While we don’t want industrial action, I do feel that for nurses that would be a red line.”

(Image source: World Economic Forum)

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