After the prime minister was criticised for saying the NHS would have to “ride out” the current Covid wave, a “damning” new report from the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee warned staff shortages have impacted and will continue to impact its ability to provide care.
MPs have warned the Covid pandemic has had a “catastrophic” impact on NHS waiting lists and the current wave of the Omicron variant is exacerbating an already “serious staffing crisis” the government is failing to address.
It follows the release of figures showing that a record 5.8 million people were waiting for an NHS operation in September last year, with 300,000 waiting for more than a year and 12,000 for more than two years.
The MPs’ report said the “key limiting factor” in the NHS’s ability to reduce the operations waiting list is workforce shortages and warned there were not sufficient plans for recruiting new staff or retaining the current workforce.
It added: “Our concerns also extend to the social care workforce, which has at present 105,000 vacancies and a turnover rate of 28 per cent, rising to 38 per cent for nurses working in social care.”
MPs heard evidence from patients who felt they had been “abandoned” by the NHS and who had to “fight” for care.
The chair of the Commons committee, Jeremy Hunt, said: “The NHS faces an unquantifiable challenge in tackling a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic, with 5.8 million patients waiting for planned care and estimates that the figure could double by 2025.
“However, our report finds that the government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis. The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem, but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce, 93,000 NHS vacancies and no sign of any plan to address this.
“Far from tackling the backlog, the NHS will be able to deliver little more than day-to-day firefighting unless the government wakes up to the scale of the staffing crisis facing the NHS, and urgently develops a long-term plan to fix the issue.”
The committee found that there has been “significant and ongoing disruption to cancer services”, adding that “at the height of the pandemic many cancer treatments were postponed or cancelled, due not only to infection concerns but also capacity shortages”.
As emergency care performance across the NHS has deteriorated since the summer, MPs warned that the “ongoing crisis” in this sector could derail the NHS’s chances of reducing waiting times and its waiting list.
Highlighting pressures in other areas of the NHS, the report said although the number of people presenting for mental health treatment dropped briefly during the early stages of the pandemic, this was followed by “historically high” levels of demand.
The committee said: “We are concerned that a focus on those areas most amenable to numerical targets risks deprioritising other equally important areas such as primary care, community services and mental health services, which all play a crucial role in keeping people healthy and out of hospital.
“There is also a risk that a new targets culture has unintended consequences, including compromises in the quality and safety of patient care. This is not a hypothetical concern considering that precisely this unintended consequence arose the last time tackling large waiting lists was a political priority.”
It added there was also a backlog in public health where children have missed out on universal programmes largely delivered at school.
Responding to the report, the Royal College of Nursing’s general secretary and chief executive, Pat Cullen, said: “This report delivers a damning verdict on the government’s commitment to safe patient care and those trying to give it.
“The cross-party group not only highlight current shortages but warn that many more are at risk of leaving too as they lose faith in the government’s willingness to ‘grip’ the situation.
“Tens of thousands of nursing roles were unfilled in the NHS and social care even before the pandemic. To keep today’s nursing staff and inspire a new generation, the government needs to match the rhetoric with solid investment. Ministers must take legal accountability for addressing this situation.”
Dr David Wrigley, the deputy council chair at the British Medical Association, said: “This wide-ranging and detailed report clearly lays out what a gargantuan challenge the NHS faces. The biggest barrier to tackling the backlog caused by the pandemic is a severe staffing crisis and our calls for improved workforce planning have thankfully been heard. It’s now time for the government to listen too.
“The report recommends that the government publish an independent assessment of workforce numbers at least once every two years, which we have repeatedly called for. Regular, detailed and public health and care workforce assessments must be made available to include modelling of current and future workforce supply, and population and patient need.”