I know there are pressures on the NHS created by the pandemic, and this winter we have seen strain put on the system due to hospitalisations from Covid and flu – we are and will continue to respond. This week I have again visited hospitals and emergency departments to see for myself how services are managing under the ever-greater pressure and I pay tribute to those working on the front line.
Whilst we respect the freedom to strike, this needs to be balanced against the need to protect lives and ensure the public get the care they need. After the upheaval of the pandemic, the strikes this winter are an unwelcome return to disruption and come at a time when we are trying to move the country forward, tackle the backlog and recover from the pandemic. This is especially true in the NHS where over 7 million people are waiting for non-emergency operations, and we face a ‘twindemic’ of Covid and flu.
Last month’s nursing and ambulance strikes saw thousands of colleagues move from the front line to picket lines – around 7 per cent of the nursing workforce – and more than 30,000 procedures or outpatient appointments rescheduled, disrupting plans to clear the backlog. While those who kept working did a formidable job – supported brilliantly by our armed forces and others – we know the quality of care patients received suffered as a result.
With further strike action expected in the NHS next week, the public is understandably worried. Even though we are training more people to drive ambulances and redeploying doctors to other parts of the system, it is no replacement for having the right people doing the right jobs, especially when we have over 5,000 people in hospital with flu and over 9,000 with Covid.
That is why we are taking a new approach to introduce legislation to make sure we have minimum levels of staff in crucial blue light services like ambulances. Although we will always support people’s choice to strike, we have to balance that with our duty to protect lives. This pragmatic approach is the same that has been taken in many other countries like France and Germany.
I have also invited unions in this week to discuss what is fair and affordable before we submit evidence to the independent Pay Review Body as part of our constructive approach.
With less than three months left of this financial year, we should be moving forward and having constructive conversations about what is affordable this coming year, rather than going back retrospectively to pay that applies as far back as April.
I recognise that inflation has made life tougher for the workforce – just as it has for many millions of families up and down the country. It’s also part of the reason why I am so determined to talk about what we can do next year on pay, and the many other improvements we need to make the NHS a better place to work. Doing this work through the Independent Pay Review Bodies process is clearly the best way to do this, not least because spending each winter frozen in pay negotiations with the unions would take focus away from the other challenges the NHS faces.
This government has been determined not to lose sight of those challenges, and the Prime Minister has made cutting NHS waiting lists one of his top five priorities for 2023.
It is a complex challenge that requires a range of responses. But we are making progress – with £14.1 billion in funding for health and social care over the next two years; record numbers of doctors and nurses; the equivalent of 7,000 extra beds; £500 million to speed up discharge from hospitals; launching 91 Community Diagnostic Centres which have already delivered more than 2.7 million tests and scans across the country; and setting up virtual wards where people with respiratory infections can be treated from home. I saw how beneficial these are to patients and staff during my visit to Watford General Hospital on Friday.
I also visited one of 42 new NHS System Control Centres in Maidstone in Kent. They have embraced live data to help cut waiting times; for example, by using digital notifications they have cut the time a bed stays empty from nearly three hours to just one hour. We are working hard to make this kind of technology the norm.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister convened an NHS Recovery Forum at Downing Street to look at all those areas where we can go further and faster. And tomorrow, I will announce further steps to improve the flow through our hospitals.
This is the kind of work we’re determined to keep doing, fixing people’s problems and taking the country forward, rather than being stuck on repeat with the unions. We are a government determined to deliver the recovery from the pandemic that is needed to improve patient outcomes, and that reflects the record investment that is being made to better integrate the NHS and social care.
I remain ready to engage with unions on what the government can do to support the workforce, and I look forward to talking with the trade unions to see how we make any settlement done through the independent pay body more affordable, where there are productivity and efficiency opportunities.
Steve Barclay is Secretary of State for Health and Social Care