Exclusive: ‘It is the first week of July, but in the health service, it feels like we’re in the middle of winter’
Across the country NHS leaders are warning of unparalleled numbers of patients needing non-Covid treatment, with A&E departments and GPs seeing record levels and hospitals already having to cancel operations, including for some cancer patients.
Ambulance services are receiving thousands more 999 calls a day while community services and mental health trusts are battling with increased pressures and the fallout of the pandemic.
Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare organisations across the country, told The Independent: “The quality and safety of patient care is always going to be more at risk in a system which is struggling to cope, and we have a system that is struggling to cope.
“It is the first week of July, but in the health service, it feels like we’re in the middle of winter. What that tells you is that in the middle of winter, the NHS is always under incredible pressure and it’s a matter of being able to kind of battle through that to the point where the level of need is more manageable. If we are in that situation now, in the first week of July, it demonstrates that we have absolutely no kind of breathing room, no space to deal with any kind of further pressure increases.”
His warning comes as ministers are set to press ahead with the end of lockdown and social distancing measures, even as the health secretary is admitting infections could hit 100,000 a day within weeks.
While the number of patients in hospitals is lower than in previous waves, incidences have still increased by more than 40 per cent in the past week: 2,446 patients are now in hospital with Covid across the UK.
Labour has called on ministers to outline a plan to help the NHS cope this summer. Writing in The Lancet 122 scientists and experts have condemned the government’s reopening plans, calling them a “dangerous and unethical experiment”.
In Leeds on Wednesday, hospital bosses revealed surgery for cancer patients had to be cancelled as the A&E department was overwhelmed and existing Covid wards were full. Yorkshire Ambulance Service saw 22 per cent more 999 calls than planned on Tuesday, with one worker saying the service was on a “knife-edge”.
In a briefing document drawn from comments of senior NHS leaders, the NHS Confederation said the service was already buckling under the strain of what it called “winter in summer”.
A number of NHS trusts have declared “black alerts”, meaning they cannot maintain services and safety is at risk.
Mr Taylor said the government needed to level with the British people.
“The government has to be clear with the public, as taxpayers, that we are going to have to put the money in if we want the health service to be able to get through this and start the recovery process.
“There is a danger that we somehow assume that because the number of patients in hospital is fewer, because the relationship between the illness and hospitalisation and death is diminished, that there isn’t a problem for the NHS.
“We have to recognise that the NHS came into this crisis with rising waiting lists and a resource gap. Covid has exacerbated that and now we’ve got millions of people who are on waiting lists or who have yet to join waiting lists.
“You’ve got a kind of perfect storm and the government has got to be clear about that, recognise that and the implications of it for funding and yes, the public themselves need to be aware of the challenges the health service is facing.”
On the end of lockdown he warned: “We have to continue to look at this on a day-to-day basis. At the moment, the figures are not giving a great deal of cause for confidence.”
One hospital manager described the pressure NHS organisations are under as the equivalent of “winter in summer”. Another NHS trust leader said: “Removing all Covid restrictions will likely result in further pressures extending to breaking point.”
One senior operational services manager warned: “In all my 39 years of operational service in the NHS I have never witnessed anything like the crisis for staffing currently being faced.”
Another primary care boss added: “The Covid effect means more infections, which means more people with long-term effects with no real resource or understanding of how to manage this.”