Praising the efforts of NHS staff during the summer, when ambulance trusts have been forced to call in the military for help and A&E departments have seen their busiest months ever, she said: “We can and should assume things will get even tougher over winter.”
The head of the NHS in England has warned the unprecedented pressure on hospitals, ambulances and GPs will get worse in coming months.
Speaking at a meeting of the NHS England board, chief executive Amanda Pritchard said the health service was seeing not just more people overall but that the patients were also sicker.
She said the health service had faced “unprecedented pressure” during the summer with 10 million A&E attendances and 3.9 million ambulance incidents in the first five months of the financial year.
The largest A&Es were seeing 100,000 more attendances compared to 2019.
“It’s no secret that the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic continue to place a huge strain on both our physical capacity and our staff. The conversations we’ve had with local leaders over the past few weeks have really highlighted that it’s not just volume of people who now need urgent care putting pressure on the system, but it’s their acuity as well.”
She said NHS teams across the country were making progress restoring NHS services despite the day to day pressures adding: “We did see five million people start elective treatment, that’s 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in the first four months of the year. “
In addition, there were 7.5 million diagnostic tests and 870,000 urgent cancer checks which is above 2019 levels.
“GPS and their teams have delivered over 124 million routine appointments between April and August, more than the same period in 2019. And at the same time, let’s not forget they’ve also delivered the majority of our vaccination appointments.”
She said the vaccination programmed was estimated to have saved 127,000 lives and prevented 261,000 patients from being hospitalised with Covid-19.
Ms Pritchard, who took over from Sir Simon Stevens as head of the NHS in England in July said the focus for the NHS in the coming months was to “achieve the maximum possible level” of routine operations and treatments to try and clear the record backlog of 5.6 million waiting patients.
She said £1.5 billion was being made available to NHS trusts to help them increase their capacity to do more work and develop ‘surgical hubs’ to deliver high volume operations.
She also said NHS England would be making more “targeted investment” for GPs so they can offer more time appointments which she would include patients being able to have ‘face to face’ appointments but added: “For many, digital access, telephone access is more convenient.”
On Thursday, NHS England published its new guidance to NHS trusts for the remaining six months of the year which set out the key targets and demands hospitals and community services must meet.
These instructions included plans to eliminate the number of patients waiting longer than two years for an operation or treatment by March 2022. Currently almost 10,000 people have been waiting over two years.
Hospitals were also told to prepare for a winter spike in demand which could see a flu season 50 per cent larger than normal. NHS England has told trusts to do more to eliminate long waits in A&E and to reduce the delays in ambulances being able to handover patients so they can get back out to 999 calls.