The government has announced a £200 million “winter resilience” fund to put the NHS on a stable footing ahead of winter.
The Prime Minister and Health Secretary met with NHS leaders, top doctors and charities in Downing Street to discuss a range of proposals to keep the system running smoothly during the busy winter months.
Department of Health and Human Services officials said the money will help ensure patients are treated as quickly as possible.
It will also help hospitals keep up with pre-scheduled surgeries and surgeries to reduce record waiting lists, officials said.
Health commentators welcomed the extra money but questioned how far it will go given ongoing doctors’ strikes.
Ministers also announced that £40 million will be invested in strengthening social care, with local authorities being asked to offer some of the money.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Winter is the most difficult time for the health service, which is why we have been planning for it all year round – with huge government investment to fund new ambulances, beds and virtual wards.”
“This additional £200 million will strengthen the health service at its busiest time while protecting elective care so we can further reduce waiting lists.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “I know the winter presents huge challenges for the NHS, which is why we are working with health leaders to ensure we are prepared sooner.”
Health officials expect a surge in cases of Covid, flu and other respiratory illnesses that typically occur in the winter months.
Many health commentators have said last winter was one of the worst on record for the NHS and hospital bosses have been planning for months to prevent the same thing from happening this winter.
Earlier this year, NHS England announced plans for financial incentives for local hospitals that “go beyond expectations” on performance metrics such as emergency department waiting times and ambulance handover times.
Plans have also been announced to introduce social care “traffic control centres” to speed up hospital discharges so that patients can be removed from hospitals when they no longer need to be there.
Other plans include more ambulances on the road, additional beds in hospitals, increased use of “acute respiratory centers” and more capacity for “virtual wards”.
Commenting on the new money, NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “Today’s clear support and confirmation of funding from the government is welcome.”
“Since the release of our emergency and urgent care recovery plan earlier this year, and thanks to the efforts of staff, waiting times for ambulance and emergency room services for patients have improved and, as always, the public can also do their part – by taking Take your winter vaccinations when invited and use services as usual – 999 in an emergency and 111 online for other health concerns.”
The announcement came after Healthwatch England said more needed to be done to support people facing record backlogs of care.
A record 7.6 million people are waiting for treatment in England. New figures on the waiting list are due to be published on Thursday.
Commenting on the announcement, Louise Ansari, chief executive of Healthwatch England, said: “We know many patients are concerned about accessing timely care when the NHS is under so much pressure.”
“So any additional investment that helps ensure people get the care they need this winter will be welcomed by patients and services alike.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the money “should support NHS leaders in their efforts to prepare for and mitigate the impact of an extremely difficult and challenging winter period”.
He added: “Many of our members may be wondering what impact this will have given the close proximity to winter and what benefit this will have against the backdrop of industrial action which is estimated to have already cost in the region of £1 billion.”
Miriam Deakin of NHS Providers added: “Trusts are working incredibly hard ahead of what is expected to be another tough winter for the NHS, with industrial action, rising waiting lists and demand for emergency services expected to increase pressure.” Today’s £200 million announcement comes amid the challenges facing the NHS are of course welcomed.
“Trust leaders tell us that the most pressing challenge facing the NHS this winter is now the real prospect of continued industrial action. They will rightly question whether enough is being done to end wave after wave of extremely disruptive strikes.”
Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said the announcement was a “sticking plaster when the NHS needs major surgery” and claimed it would achieve “nothing” compared to the damage of ongoing strikes.
“If the Conservatives don’t even try to put an end to these strikes, what’s the point of them?” he asked.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “If we want to avoid a health crisis this winter, we must ensure that primary care is not overlooked.”
It was disappointing to see no additional funding for primary care in the government’s winter plan.”