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Government must act now to guard NHS against tough winter

The  NHS is facing a backlog of 5.5m patients that cannot be ignored, the NHS Confederation has warned. 

NHS bosses say it is continuing to make progress on non-urgent care despite experiencing one of its busiest summers ever, new figures show today.

The number of patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for care has dropped by almost 25,000 while those waiting more than a year fell by almost 32,000.

Average waiting times for elective care is down for the fourth month in a row to 10.4 weeks, more than seven weeks lower than this time last year.

More diagnostic tests were carried out this month than at any point over the last year with almost two million tests carried out in July – up by more than 747,000 on the same period last year.

Around a quarter of a million people were checked for cancer in June, the second-highest number on record and more than 27,000 people started treatment for cancer in the same period, a 42% increase in June last year.

The NHS has seen more than eight million elective patients since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, while seeing over 420,000 Covid patients, meaning for every Covid patient the NHS has seen five non-Covid elective patients.

However, Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said the NHS still faces a monumental challenge.

‘NHS teams have been working incredibly hard to restore services and care for as many patients as possible, with the number of people waiting over a year to start treatment falling by a further 32,000 month-on-month – a remarkable feat against a backdrop of workforce shortages and reduced capacity because of infection control requirements.

‘With the second-highest number of people on record checked for cancer in June, it’s clear how much progress is being made. But the NHS still faces a monumental challenge.

‘We cannot escape the fact that there is now a backlog of 5.5m patients, or that pressure across the health service is still increasing, with 2.16 million A&E attendances in July – the highest since winter 2019 and amounting to some 70,000 attendances a day.

‘The government must take steps now to make sure the NHS can cope as autumn and winter are expected to be even tougher than usual this year.

‘Health leaders urgently need clarity on funding for the second half of the financial year and beyond.

‘Without this, trusts risk having to spend money for which they might not be reimbursed, to manage ongoing Covid-19 pressures, keep making sure people can leave the hospital as soon as they are medically fit, and manage capital requirements.

‘The NHS will continue to do all it can to care for all patients, but we must acknowledge the pandemic could still cause further disruption. We can all keep taking simple steps to protect ourselves and others from Covid-19, especially as self-isolation requirements are set to be reduced.

‘That includes wearing face coverings, keeping up hand hygiene, and getting both doses of a vaccine.’

man in white and blue robe standing near white wooden door

The progress in recovering services has been made despite hospitals experiencing one of its busiest summers ever with 70,000 A&E attendances a day in July, almost 20,000 more each day than this time last year.

NHS bosses said July was a busy month for the ambulance service with more than one million calls to 999 answered, the highest number ever. The service also saw the highest ever number of ambulance callouts for life threatening conditions with 82,000 calls – 8,000 more than the previous record high in June.

The NHS is reminding patients that the best way to seek urgent care is by first calling 111 or using NHS 111 Online for an assessment that will refer to the most appropriate service available. NHS 111 can book you an appointment at your local A&E meaning you have an allocated time to attend and be treated, with 75,000 A&E appointments booked in July alone.

Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director for NHS England, said: ‘NHS staff have made effective use of the additional resources made available to us to recover services which were inevitably disrupted during the pandemic, and we are continuing to tackle the Covid backlog.

‘This has come as services have seen some of the highest ever number of patients coming forward for care during the summer months, all at the same time as delivering the biggest and most precise vaccine roll-out in our history.

‘I would urge anyone who needs the NHS to come forward through NHS 111 Online so that staff can help you with the best option for your care.’

Photo Credit – SJ Objio

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