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The government announced £200mn in fresh funding to help the NHS in England through the winter peak but health leaders warned that it would do little to relieve pressure on hospitals that are already struggling from the impact of the doctors’ strikes.
Ministers said on Thursday they would also funnel a further £40mn from existing pots to improve social care capacity, strengthen services targeted at avoiding hospital admissions and increase rates of discharge from hospitals.
The NHS looks set to go into the winter months with waiting lists near record highs, further compounded by staff shortages and the prospect of continuing industrial action.
“Winter is the most challenging time for the health service, which is why we’ve been planning for it all year — with huge government investment to fund new ambulances, beds and virtual wards,” said prime minister Rishi Sunak. “This extra £200mn will bolster the health service during its busiest period while protecting elective care so we can keep cutting waiting lists.”
But Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said that while the extra funding was a positive step there was a “need for honesty” about the challenges facing the health service.
“Many of our members may question how much impact this will have given the proximity to winter, and also what good this will do against the backdrop of industrial action estimated to have already cost in the region of £1bn,” he said.
“The risk is that this money is simply absorbed to cover existing and escalating costs elsewhere, with patients seeing little benefit in terms of day-to-day care, waiting lists or performance.”
Taylor also noted that strike action by consultants, junior doctors and radiographers later this month is likely to cost the NHS well over the £200mn being offered to alleviate winter stress.
Industrial action has affected more than 800,000 hospital appointments across the NHS, according to official estimates. Previous industrial action by consultants resulted in 65,500 appointments being disrupted, according to NHS England.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said that while the announcement of new money was welcome, “urgent clarity is needed over whether this money is intended for specific initiatives or to offer general additional support to health services”.
She also noted there are serious questions about whether “enough is being done to resolve wave after wave of highly disruptive strikes”, adding: “The government must also take a long, hard look at the fundamental long-term challenges facing social care rather than trying to get by through short-term quick fixes.”
Sunak and health secretary Steve Barclay met clinical leaders and NHS chiefs on Wednesday to discuss plans to ease pressure on urgent and emergency care, as well as look at ways to prevent waiting lists for elective care from increasing.