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Trusts relying on agency and private sector to tackle ‘bulging’ post-winter backlog

A report released today has identified a record-high surge in demand of NHS services over winter period.

The findings, by NHS Providers, highlighted an unprecedented demand for health services from December to March, where the number of people coming in to A&E rose to more than 5.8 million, equivalent to 10 times the population of Liverpool.

“Demand for services this winter substantially exceeded the previous winter,” the report wrote. “Most parts of the health service were under intense and sustained pressure, staff were unable to deliver the standard of care they would like and patient care in too many instances was compromised.”

The document added that this winter laid bare a “fundamental mismatch” between demand and supply across all parts of the NHS.

There were 1.3 million arrivals via ambulance, and when patients were delivered to A&E, there was a delay in processing people through to the wards: delays in handing patients over were described as “widespread,” with two-thirds of trusts experiencing handover delays of more than an hour each week.

The widespread Norovirus and flu were amongst the reasons for the spike in demand, in addition to the slipping performance against waiting time targets, the cancellation of elective operations, and mixed-sex wards.

But despite the record demand for health services, the NHS still managed to treat, admit or discharge more patients than ever before, seeing an additional 160,000 people within the four-hour target compared to last winter.

The report said: “We cannot continue to be unrealistic about the levels of demand the NHS is experiencing and must have a feasible and deliverable task for the NHS set out by national oversight bodies.

“In response, trusts will have to utilise a range of approaches to help tackle the bulging waiting list including rescheduling and reconfiguring planned services, paying for extra staff through bank and agency shifts, asking the regulators for funding for additional beds; and sending patients for treatment in the private sector.”

The head of analysis at NHS Providers, Phillippa Hentsch, who wrote about the issue for the NHE blog as well as in our latest magazine, added: “The unprecedented demand for care last winter exposed the vulnerability of health and care services which – despite heroic efforts – lacked the resources to ensure the standards of care that patients have a right to expect, and that trusts and their staff want to provide.”

Hentsch claimed this was a “watershed” moment for the NHS as performance targets established to ensure safe, good quality care moved beyond reach, noting: “We must learn from last winter’s experiences to ensure services are safe and resilient next time.”

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Image: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images


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