Government health plan revealed – and there’ll be even longer waiting times and not an extra penny
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens unveiled a two-year blueprint to boost cancer care, improve access to GPs and slash waits in A&E
The Tories are today accused of “conning patients” by expecting NHS bosses to deliver major reform without much-needed extra cash.
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens unveiled a two-year blueprint to boost cancer care, improve access to GPs and slash waits in A&E.
But he admitted funding was “very tight” and millions of patients could have to wait even longer for operations like hip and knee replacements.
The NHS is currently suffering the worst waiting times in its history.
Record numbers of overburdened staff are quitting and overstretched hospitals are on the brink of collapse.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth told the Daily Mirror: “The NHS strategy contains welcome ambitions around mental health and cancer care that Labour endorses.
“But without giving the NHS the money it desperately needs, Theresa May is conning patients who won’t get the standards of care they expect.”
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents health bodies, also suggested the plan was a “leap in the dark” considering the service’s “difficult financial position”.
And Britain’s most senior doctor, Mark Porter, warned it “did not address fundamental funding pressures”.
Dr Porter, chairman of the British Medical Association, added: “The efficiency targets set in this plan are fanciful, given that most hospitals have been pushed into the red.”
Mr Stevens admitted he expected waiting times to rise slightly as a “trade-off” for improvement in other areas, such as hitting the four-hour A&E target and better cancer care.
Longer waits can be expected for pre-planned ops such as hip and knee replacements, cataract removal and hernia operations.
The NHS has a target that 92% of patients should be treated within 18 weeks of referral by their GP. But it has not been hit since February 2016.
Mr Stevens said: “We expect that the number of operations that the NHS pays for will continue to go up, but we recognise that – right now about nine out of 10 people get their operations in under 18 weeks – in some parts of the country that will be under pressure.”
He also said hundreds of thousands of patients would no longer be referred to a consultant by their GP.
Instead, family doctors will be able to phone consultants for advice, while other measures will be put in place to cut the number of people needing to be sent to hospital for care.
Hospitals will also be told part of their funding will be tied to improving general health, with staff encouraged to have a “quiet word” with patients who drink or smoke too much.
Mr Stevens said: “The evidence shows that if you’ve had a heart attack or are in hospital for something, that’s the moment when people are willing to think about making changes.”
Measures previously announced to save the NHS cash include cutting the prescriptions bill for sunscreen, gluten-free foods and travel vaccines.
Mr Stevens declined to say “anything new” on whether he was happy with NHS funding. In January, he told MPs it would be “stretching it” to say the health service got more money than it asked for from ministers.
Critics last night raised concerns about longer waiting times and how the NHS plan could be delivered.
Clare Marx, of the Royal College of Surgeons, said: “We risk returning to the days of unacceptably long waits for elective surgical treatment.”
Caroline Abrahams, of Age UK, added: “Having to wait a long time for an operation or procedure may not only condemn an older person to misery and pain, it can also undermine their resilience and make it harder for them to sustain their independence.”
And Rehana Azam, of the GMB union, warned: “Reducing standards is a mark of shame and a shocking admission of failure for ministers who came to power promising to cut the deficit, not the NHS.”
But last night the Government claimed the NHS was getting better because it had invested £10billion.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “This plan sets out how the NHS will meet the challenges of an ageing population head on and deliver further improvements for patients.”
What the plan actually means
Health chiefs vowed their plan will mean an extra 5,000 Brits will survive cancer every year.
Expanded screening will improve prevention and early detection of the disease, they added.
This includes the introduction of a new bowel cancer screening test for over four million people from April 2018.
They also plan to implement the “largest radiotherapy upgrade programme in 15 years” with £130million being spent on new or upgraded equipment.
Over 50 new radiotherapy machines will be rolled out across 34 hospitals over the next 18 months.
And 10 new Rapid Diagnostic and Assessment Centres will be introduced across England aiming to boost early diagnosis.
Everyone who has symptoms of cancer will find out whether they have the disease or not within a maximum of 28 days.
VERDICT: Dr Nicola Strickland, president of The Royal College of Radiologists, said there was a “lack of detail about delivery”.
She added: “The idea of Rapid Diagnostic and Assessment Centres is admirable, but this is very unlikely to lead to patients getting their test results any sooner.
“There are already almost a quarter of a million patients waiting over a month for the results of scans in the UK due to a severe shortage of radiologists.”
The NHS plan says everyone will have access to the option of evening and weekend GP appointments in their area by March 2019.
NHS MARCH IN LONDON REACHES PARLIAMENT SQUARE
Bosses plan to roll out local care networks that will bring together GPs, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, therapists and social care workers to deliver a single health and care system for neighbourhoods.
They say making the most of the full primary care team’s skills “will help free up GPs so that they are better able to help patients with complex or multiple long-term conditions”.
This includes a total of 1,300 pharmacists working at GP surgeries by March 2019.
Arvind Madan, a GP and NHS England Director of Primary Care, said: “The measures we are setting out today will continue to build momentum behind the wider transformation of primary care and help us deliver the high quality, flexible health service that is needed in the face of ever-rising patient demand.”
But new figures released earlier this week show that almost 150 GPs are quitting the NHS every month.
VERDICT: Dr Mark Porter, chair of the British Medical Association, said: “The constant calls for more GPs to be available for longer is not matched by the reality on the ground – far from delivering 5,000 extra GPs promised by the government, figures from earlier this week show that the number of full-time GPs is, in fact, falling.”
He added: “At a time when our hospitals are in deficit, GPs are unable to keep up with the number of patients coming through the surgery door and staff are working under impossible conditions.”
A new “fast track” programme for nurses is being launched by the NHS to boost nursing numbers on wards.
The Nurse First programme will provide financial support for graduates who have degrees in subjects that are not nursing, but that are related.
It will enable people wishing to become a nurse to take a fast-track “top up” programme that will lead to them becoming a graduate nurse.
The programme will first supply nurses to mental health positions and those aimed at looking after people with learning disabilities.
Professor Jane Cummings, Chief Nursing Officer for England, said: “It’s vital we continue to attract the best and brightest graduates, offering additional entry routes and career opportunities, so that we can continue to deliver specialist, high-quality care to all.”
VERDICT: Janet Davies, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, welcomed the move but warned action was also needed to persuade existing nurses not to quit.
She said: “The current shortage of nurses and unsafe staffing levels puts high quality patient care at risk.
“Specialist nurses are key to every part of this plan – from cancer care to mental health. If it is to work, the Government and NHS England must find a way to retain nursing staff who currently feel no choice but to leave.”
And UNISON head of health Christina McAnea added: “Ministers need to realise that unless they come up with the cash for a decent pay rise,
health employees will keep on leaving. And without well-trained and experienced staff, the plan looks doomed to fail.”
Emergency and urgent care
NHS chiefs plan to ease pressure on A&E by offering better access to GP services, an “enhanced” 111 service, and 150 newly designated 150 Urgent Treatment Centres.
They will be open 12 hours a day and will treat those whose conditions mean they don’t need to go to A&E but also can’t wait to see their GP.
Patients will be seen by medics with access to diagnostic facilities including X-ray machines.
They also plan to station some GPs in A&E units so they can catch patients who turn up at casualty wards but don’t actually require emergency care.
The plans also involve the rollout of NHS 111 online, allowing people to enter specific symptoms and received advice on management of conditions by email.
But critics fear this could lead to patients in need of urgent care being missed by the system.
The NHS plan also aims to free up up to 3,000 acute hospital beds by working better with social services to prevent delayed transfers of care.
But experts warn extra cash will be needed to help councils boost social care in order to relieve the strain on the NHS.
Chris Ham, chief executive of health think tank The King’s Fund, said: “Hospitals are now under pressure all year round and so the ambition to improve A&E performance and other key services within the current budget is extremely ambitious.
“Putting the onus on the NHS and local authorities to work together to improve social care and free up hospital beds is the right approach.
“But with growing pressures on both services, expecting 3,000 hospital beds to be freed up is optimistic.
“With almost no growth in the NHS budget from next year, the government will need to revisit the NHS funding settlement to deliver the commitments set out in this plan.”
Give us cash to stop the agony
Junior doctor Rachel Clarke
“We can pay, doctor – we have our savings,” he pleaded, eyes boring into mine. “He can’t carry on with the pain, you see,” his wife added. “Please do something to help him.”
At 76, after a lifetime of farming, David’s knees were crippled with arthritis. Knee replacements would give him his life back.
But my hands were tied. Houdini couldn’t break into an NHS orthopaedic waiting list, never mind a junior doctor. With tears now welling in David’s eyes, I was forced to turn him away.
If Theresa May or Jeremy Hunt ever confronted the faces we do – desperate, begging, contorted with pain – would they still refuse quite so casually to fund a first-class health service?
News that even more patients are set to endure long waits for operations is not a minor “trade-off” – it is an indictment of a Cabinet that is happy to stump up £56billion for a high-speed train line, yet won’t protect vulnerable citizens from unendurable pain.