HEALTHCARE EXPERTS have been responding to the publication by NHS England of the latest monthly performance statistics.

Hugh Alderwick, Director of Policy at the Health Foundation, said: “Today’s data highlight the extreme pressure on NHS patients and staff, with millions of people feeling the negative effects of a health system struggling under unbearable strain.

“Despite the incredible efforts of NHS staff, there are now more than 6 million people waiting for routine hospital treatment, with nearly 300,000 waiting more than a year in February – including 23,000 waiting more than two years. Emergency care is also under severe pressure: 22,500 patients waited more than 12 hours on trolleys in emergency departments for a hospital bed last month, compared to less than 700 in March last year.

“These pressures are not evenly distributed, with some areas hit harder than others. Over one in 10 of the people waiting for routine hospital treatment in Birmingham have already waited over a year, compared to just one in 100 in South West London.

“Part of the pressures are clearly down to Covid-19, with many staff off sick or self-isolating and Covid-19 continuing to disrupt care. Government must be honest about the impact of ‘living with covid’ on the NHS and social care. But the health system was already struggling before the pandemic – hampered by a decade of underinvestment in health and social care and chronic staff shortages. The NHS now faces staffing gaps of around 110,000.

“Staff and patients know that action is needed to address systemic workforce shortages – and today’s figures should be a wake-up call for government. Tackling the enormous backlog of unmet need depends on having enough staff to deliver care. Yet government has no long-term strategy for securing the workforce of the future. A fully funded workforce plan for the NHS is urgently needed and must be a priority for government.”

Also commenting on the new data, Danielle Jefferies, Analyst at The King’s Fund said: “In recent months the government has focused on tackling the backlogs for planned hospital care and diagnostic tests that have been exacerbated by Covid-19. But today’s performance data show pressures now reaching unacceptable levels in all parts of the health and care system.

“A&E departments remain full of patients in need of urgent care, and separate data shows a similar story in general practice and social care. In March, 22,500 people waited more than 12 hours to be admitted to hospital from A&E – a more than 30-fold increase compared to a year ago. Today’s data also show ambulance service response times for serious health conditions are falling far below the national standards, with patients waiting over an hour for an emergency ambulance.

“The common link between the unrelenting pressure across all parts of the NHS and social care is a chronic shortage of staff. While staff absence due to Covid-19 is an immediate and serious pressure for health and care services, the workforce crisis predates the pandemic. Just one in four NHS employees now feels there are enough staff in their organisation for them to do their job properly, and the public now cite workforce shortages as the second most common reason for dissatisfaction with the NHS.

“Despite this, the government has repeatedly resisted calls to regularly publish workforce projections to make clear how many staff are needed and the government’s plan to meet the necessary staffing requirements. Until the government grasps the nettle on health and care staffing shortages it will be patients and the public who ultimately pay the price through longer waits and poorer care.”

* Sources: The Health Foundation and The King’s Fund