Plans to tackle NHS backlog could be derailed by lack of staff, MPs warn

Doctors will have to spend their time “firefighting” to keep the NHS afloat if Ministers do not “wake up” to the scale of the staffing crisis, MPs have warned.

By Caitlin Doherty
Thursday, 6th January 2022, 6:00 am
A man enters a walk-in NHS testing centre in Camberley, Surrey.  (PA)
A man enters a walk-in NHS testing centre in Camberley, Surrey. (PA)

The NHS faces an “unquantifiable challenge” in clearing the nearly six million strong backlog of patients that has built up throughout the pandemic, but Omicron and a growing crisis in emergency care risks derailing plans to get through waiting lists.

Meanwhile, one Yorkshire medic has said that the increasing number of coronavirus patients and minimal help from Government is equating to doctors feeling like ”It’s almost as if the NHS has been thrown under a bus.”

In its new report released today the cross-party Health and Social Care Committee said that tackling the wider backlog caused by the pandemic is a major task as it includes all the people who have yet to come forward for care

The Parliamentary report said: “Now, as we approach a third year living with Covid, the catastrophic impact on patients waiting for NHS care is becoming clearer.

“Of the 5.8 million patients waiting to start treatment in September 2021, 300,000 have been waiting more than a year and 12,000 more than two years.”

While MPs welcomed Government funding to create an extra nine million checks, scans and operations, they said NHS England has yet to publish its plan on “how it plans to meet its workforce requirements”, despite this being promised by Health Secretary Sajid Javid by the end of November 2021.

Former Health Secretary and chair of the Health and Social Care Committee Jeremy Hunt said: “The NHS faces an unquantifiable challenge in tackling a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic, with 5.8 million patients waiting for planned care and estimates that the figure could double by 2025. 

“However, our report finds that the Government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis.

“The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem, but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce, 93,000 NHS vacancies and no sign of any plan to address this. 

“Far from tackling the backlog, the NHS will be able to deliver little more than day to day firefighting unless the Government wakes up to the scale of the staffing crisis facing the NHS, and urgently develops a long-term plan to fix the issue.”

Dr David Wrigley, the British Medical Association’s deputy council chairman, said: “This wide-ranging and detailed report clearly lays out what a gargantuan challenge the NHS faces.

“The biggest barrier to tackling the backlog caused by the pandemic is a severe staffing crisis and our calls for improved workforce planning have thankfully been heard. It’s now time for the Government to listen too.”

The numbers of patients with Covid needing hospital care is continuing to increase across England, and has led to the launch of so-called Nightingale Surge hubs at a number of hospitals across the country to try and ease the strain.

One of these eight new facilities will be at St James’s Hospital in Leeds.

But Brian McGregor, chairman of the British Medical Association’s Yorkshire branch, warned that staff would need to be taken away from hospitals which are already stretched to run these units.

He said: “The staff will need to come from somewhere and where are you going to take staff from when everywhere else is already stretched and trying to maintain their own services?”

He added: “We know that staff are being damaged by the fact that they can’t provide the care they want to provide because of the pressure they’re under.

“All we’re seeing is increasing Covid cases but very little from the Government with regards to trying to restrict that rapid rise.

“It’s almost as if the NHS has been thrown under a bus,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The pandemic has put enormous pressures on the NHS but we are committed to supporting hardworking staff to ensure people get the treatment they need.

“We have provided an additional £5.9 billion to help tackle the backlogs and we are investing £36 billion over three years which will help deliver an extra 9 million checks, scans and operations for patients.

“We have over 5,100 doctors and nearly 10,000 more nurses in the NHS compared to last year and we’re committed to delivering 50,000 more nurses by the end of this Parliament.”