Labour is calling on the government to spend £500m on an NHS “winter bailout” that would help to recruit additional staff without having to resort to “costly” agency workers.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the new money was needed to boost the capacity of hospitals to cope with the spike in demand that occurs during the winter. It should also be used to hire extra non-agency staff and improve the transfer of patients to social care, he said.
“As demand increases over the winter months, it’s patients who will pay the price unless something is done”
Mr Ashworth said that prime minister Theresa May “stuck her head in the sand” last winter and refused to fund the NHS properly.
“It pushed NHS staff beyond their limits and caused misery for patients in every part of the country,” he said. “It can’t be allowed to happen again.”
The Labour party said that a repeat of last winter’s funding pressures would see 10,000 people waiting more than four hours for accident and emergency care every day, with hundreds of operations cancelled and waiting lists growing.
Labour, which is currently holding its annual conference in Brighton, warned that this year the NHS had not recovered during the traditionally quieter summer months, leading to fears of unprecedented delays for patients this winter.
Worrying signs included bed capacity at a 16 year high, delayed bed days due to social care 11% higher this July compared to last year, and NHS England’s warning of a “heavy flu season” ahead, noted the party.
Mr Ashworth said: “Labour is calling for a comprehensive package of emergency support, including a new £500m winter bailout fund, to urgently be put in place so that patients don’t suffer the same pain as last year all over again.
“It is not acceptable for the government to stumble into another NHS winter crisis – they’ve been well warned and need to take action now,” he added.
But the Department of Health rejected Labour’s claim that the government had no detailed plans in place. “The NHS planned for winter earlier this year than ever before,” said a spokeswoman.
“It has robust plans in place, supported by an extra £100m for A&E departments and £2bn funding for the social care system to help improve discharging and free up beds in hospitals,” she said.
Labour chases nursing vote with three-part NHS pledge
The spokeswoman added: “Since 2010, hardworking NHS staff are treating 1,800 more patients within four hours each day and are seeing 2.8 million more people each year.”
In recent years “winter resilience payments” have become the norm for the NHS. In each of the last two financial years the payment was £400m per annum and in 2014-15 it amounted to £700m, according to written answers provided by ministers.
Asked by Nursing Times specifically about the staffing issues raised by Labour, the DH said: “Staffing is a priority – that’s why we have invested in the frontline and there are over 29,600 more professionally qualified clinical staff, including… over 11,300 more nurses on our wards since May 2010.”
“We have also committed to funding… an extra 10,000 places for nurses, midwives and allied health professionals by 2020, to ensure the NHS has the staff it needs both now and in the future,” added the spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing said it believed that any bailout money should be used to bolster frontline staff.
Its chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies said: “Having the right number of nurses is key to treating people effectively and safely. Yet too many hospitals are chronically short of nursing staff.
“As demand increases over the winter months, it’s patients who will pay the price unless something is done,” she said, adding that if the right political decisions had been taken, the NHS would be properly funded and not require a “last minute” bailout.
The Nuffield Trust think-tank said that with hospitals overstretched and trusts facing a £6bn hole in their budgets, any major flu outbreak would create a “grim” outlook. But it said a “one-off financial bung” was not the answer.
“The shortages of beds and staff have been years in the making, and cannot simply be reversed in a few months,” said the trust’s chief executive Nigel Edwards.
“We need a long term funding settlement for health and social care so that the NHS can actually plan on the basis of having enough resources,” he said. “All political parties have been avoiding this question for too long.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said his organisation had been warning for months of the need to fund extra staff and beds to cope with winter demand. “Unfortunately it is getting very late in the day to put in place the extra resources that will be needed,” he said.
However he said that planning had improved since last year’s difficult winter. “It is positive that planning for winter is considerably more developed than last year and that emergency care performance has been given greater priority,” he added.