A “challenging winter” has been forecast for the NHS in England, as a leading health think-tank’s latest quarterly report found evidence of “worrying” declines in levels of morale among staff.
The King’s Fund report also found widespread gloom about NHS budgets, with 91% of trust finance directors saying they were “very” or “fairly pessimistic” about the financial state of the health and care economy in their area over the coming year – the highest level recorded since the quarterly survey began in 2011.
“This is a warning sign that should be taken seriously by NHS leaders”
Almost half (47%) of finance directors at NHS trusts ranked low morale as their greatest cause for concern, followed by delays in patient transfers and hitting A&E waiting time targets.
The report found that “increasing workloads and a downward pressure on budgets” were contributing to a decline in morale and warned that levels of staff satisfaction have an impact on the quality of clinical care and the productivity of labour.
Richard Murray, director of policy at The King’s Fund, said: “Given the close association between staff engagement and quality of care, this is a warning sign that should be taken seriously by NHS leaders.”
He added: “The NHS relies on the dedication of its staff, so the growing concern about staff morale is worrying.”
The quarterly monitoring report, covering the period June to September, found that 5% of patients were spending four or more hours in A&E - the highest level at this time of year for a decade.
In addition, it found that referral-to-treatment waiting times reached their highest levels since 2008, with 12.1% of inpatients waiting more than 18 weeks for hospital treatment.
Some 84% of cancer patients received treatment within 62 days in the period April-June, missing the target of 85% for the second consecutive quarter.
“Despite a reported £930m of additional government funding to improve hospital waiting times and ease pressures in A&E, this points to a challenging winter ahead,” said the King’s Fund.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: “This report paints a worrying picture of a demoralised NHS which is getting worse by the week.
“Patients deserve better from their prime minister. Hospital A&Es in England have now missed this government’s own lowered A&E target for 65 weeks in a row. The NHS in England is getting worse on David Cameron’s watch,” he said.
The Kings Fund study surveyed 133 finance directors, including 90 from NHS Trusts and 43 from Clinical Commissioning Groups between September 9 and 23.
The Department of Health highlighted figures showing that, in the last quarter, 50,000 more people were admitted, treated or discharged from A&E within four hours compared with the same period in 2010.
A DH spokesman said: “We know the NHS is under pressure but the vast majority of people continue to be seen and treated quickly.
“We’ve increased the NHS budget by £12.7bn over this parliament and expect NHS trusts to have a strong grip on their finances,” he said.
“We know staff are working hard to provide safe, high-quality care, which goes hand in hand with saving money,” he added.