NHS crisis cannot wait for new PM, admits health secretary

NHS crisis cannot wait for new PM, admits health secretary
Steve Barclay considering ‘significant’ increase in overseas recruitment to help ease staff shortages

The NHS in England cannot wait for a new prime minister to tackle “very serious challenges” it faces in the autumn and winter, the health secretary has said.

Steve Barclay said key decisions – including whether to hire more staff from overseas – would have to be made before the outcome of the Conservative leadership contest.

The recently-appointed health secretary said a “real sprint” will be needed before winter to protect the NHS ahead of an expected influx of patients.

“We have very real challenges coming down the track in the autumn and winter, and as far as I’m concerned there needs to be a real sprint within Whitehall, and particularly in the Department of Health, to get ready for September,” Mr Barclay told The Telegraph.

“There’s an urgency of now to prepare, particularly in areas where there’s a long lead time,” said the former No 10 chief of staff. “The decisions need to happen now, not wait until the autumn – by which time those lead times would put the resolution at too late a stage.”

Mr Barclay added: “I have been working at pace over recent weeks to accelerate our contingency plans, to look at specific levers such as increasing significantly our international recruitment. We don’t want people delayed on the ward – that is a bad outcome.”

His comments come amid fresh concerns over a staffing crisis in the NHS, with an analysis of workforce figures finding the health service may be becoming over-reliant on recruits from abroad.

Figures from NHS Digital show the share of healthcare staff recruited from overseas almost doubled between 2014 and 2021, according to an analysis by the BBC.

According to the broadcaster, 34 per cent of doctors joining the health service in 2021 came from overseas – a rise from 18 per cent in 2014.

The BBC also found the share of UK doctors joining the health service had fallen from 69 per cent in 2015 to 58 per cent last year, while the share of new UK nurses fell from 74 per cent to 61 per cent in the same period.

Meanwhile, the share of doctors recruited from outside the UK and the EU rose from 18 per cent to 34 per cent, and the share of nurses rose from 7 per cent to 34 per cent.

It comes as The Independent revealed that armed police are being sent to save the lives of people in cardiac arrest because ambulances “can’t cope” with demand.

Officers are spending up to a third of their time on non-policing matters, a watchdog has warned, including responding to mental health crises and transporting patients to A&E as ambulance services face a “chronic crisis situation”.

Andy Cooke, HM chief inspector of constabulary, told The Independent that police are becoming the “first, last and only resort” as NHS services buckle under strain.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, called for “urgent action” from the government to tackle “chronic staff shortages in the longer term”.

He said: “While there is also a focus on growing and retaining the domestic workforce, we can’t escape the fact that there are 105,000 vacancies in the NHS and 165,000 vacancies in social care.”

“We are in need of urgent action and the new prime minister must commit to publishing a fully costed and funded workforce plan to tackle chronic staff shortages in the longer term.”

Ministers have been accused of overseeing a “zombie” government as Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak battle it out to succeed Boris Johnson, but Mr Barclay insisted he would be making key decisions in August to prepare the NHS for the months ahead.

“Part of my role is to prepare for reasonable worst case scenarios,” he said. “Obviously those pressures can come in different forms. It might be you get a bad flu, it may be Covid rates are higher than we would expect or like.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “There are over 4,300 more doctors and 10,200 more nurses working in the NHS compared to last year, and we are on track to deliver 50,000 more nurses by 2024.

“We’re boosting our homegrown recruitment – including by opening five new medical schools and providing a 25% increase in funding for medical school places over three years to 2020, with the first graduates from this cohort entering foundation training this year.”

The spokesperson added: “Internationally trained staff have been part of the NHS ever since its inception and they continue to play a vital role in helping us tackle the Covid backlogs.”

The government recently signed bilateral agreements with countries like India, Philippines, Kenya, Malaysia and Sri Lanka to support the recruitment and training of nurses.”