The NHS will today set out steps to rapidly boost capacity and resilience, including through increasing bed availability and staff numbers, ahead of the busy winter period.
Health chiefs will outline plans to prepare local services for additional pressure, by creating the equivalent of 7,000 more beds through a mixture of new hospital beds, ‘virtual ward’ spaces and initiatives to improve patient flow over the coming months.
The NHS will also recruit more call handlers across the country so that we have at least 4,800 staff working in 111 and 2,500 in 999 call rooms to deal with higher demand.
Additional capacity in the 999 system will help staff meet record demand, with a live 999 call answer dashboard and a target to answer calls in an average of 10 seconds.
Having a national health service means that hospitals can continue to use mutual aid throughout the winter including through NHS 111 services, which will work to improve response times by automatically diverting calls between trusts to improve call waits for patients.
England’s top doctor today said that the NHS was “taking every step possible” to ensure the NHS was prepared for any additional pressure in winter.
With the latest stats showing only 40% of patients were able to leave hospital when they were ready to in July, the package of measures will also see the NHS working more closely with social care services to ensure that people receive the care and support they need as quickly as possible in order to be able to leave hospital safely, and to stay well in their homes and communities.
Extensive planning is already underway for an autumn COVID-19 booster programme as well as the annual flu campaign so that those most at risk can get protected ahead of winter.
Other measures will include creating resilience in out of hospital services, including:
- An extra £10 million funding for mental health services throughout the winter to deal with record demand.
- Mental health professionals will be deployed in 999 call centres so that people experiencing a mental health crisis can be directed towards appropriate services.
- GP services will be supported through the recruitment of extra social prescribing link workers and care-coordinators to support patients with other needs.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director said: “Winter is always a busy period for the NHS, and this is the first winter where we are likely to see combined pressures from COVID and flu, so it is right that we prepare as early as we can for the additional demand that we know we will face.
“Staff are already under pressure with continued high demand for our services – with figures showing the busiest summer ever for NHS emergency departments, with 2.18 million A&E attendances and almost 900,000 999 calls answered in June, and in July the highest number of category 1 ambulance callouts since records began”.
“Ahead of the winter, we want to make sure we are doing everything we possibly can to free up capacity so that staff can ensure patients get the care they need – this includes timely discharge, working with social care, and better support in the community with the expansion of virtual wards.
“We are also making the most of the advantages that a national health service provides – hospitals will be working closely together to ensure patients can be seen anywhere in the country and to speed up call times when patients call 111.
“As ever, it is vital that the public continues to use NHS services in the usual way including using 999 in an emergency and using NHS 111 online for other health issues.
“And when the time comes, book in for your COVID and flu vaccines if you are eligible”.
Official NHS figures published yesterday also show that despite the heatwave in July, NHS staff dealt with more than 85,000 (85,397) category 1 ambulance callouts – the highest number since records began and almost two thirds higher than in July 2020 (51,771).
That is also a third higher than pre-pandemic, with 23,610 more of the most serious incidents than in July 2019.
While contending with record levels of demand on emergency services, hospitals have also treated hundreds of thousands of patients with COVID-19 this year, with over 8,300 patients with COVID currently in hospital.
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “To prepare for what could be a challenging winter, I am working closely with the NHS at pace to ensure we are ready for the pressures ahead. By increasing capacity, boosting NHS 111 and 999 support, tackling delayed discharge and using new innovations such as virtual wards, we can help patients get the care they need, when they need it.
“Alongside this, I have launched a taskforce to drive up the recruitment of international staff into critical roles across the system, while we recruit and retain more doctors and nurses, so we can continue our work of busting the COVID backlogs, having now virtually eliminated waits of over two years as part of our Elective Recovery Plan – backed by record investment”.
Earlier this week, the NHS announced it had virtually eliminated two-year waits for elective care before the end of July, delivering on the first milestone in the NHS Elective Recovery Plan.
The NHS is already making progress on the next ambition, with efforts now focusing on people who have been waiting more than two months after an urgent referral for suspected cancer or waiting 18 months for routine care.