£5.4bn to help NHS tackle Covid and backlog is ‘first step’, say health leaders

An extra £5.4 billion in funding for the NHS in the next six months should only be “the first instalment” of the “substantial” sums needed to put the service on the road to recovery, health leaders have said.

The funding, which was announced by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), is aimed at continuing the response to coronavirus and to tackle the backlog caused by the pandemic.

It was welcomed by health leaders, who warned of staff shortages and exhausted workers who still face a difficult winter.

In a joint statement, NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor and NHS Providers deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said: “The NHS can now get on with the huge task it has ahead of what we anticipate will be one of the most challenging winters the service has ever faced.

Coronavirus – Thu Oct 22, 2020
The entrance to a Covid-19 ward (Peter Byrne/PA)

“The task for the Government now is to follow up in its spending review with the extra £10 billion a year the NHS will need over the next three years to avoid patient services from being cut.”

They said the clarity over funding has come “late in the year” but it means hospital, ambulance, mental health, community and primary care services can finally plan their services knowing the budget they have available.

The pair added that the NHS will be held back by major staff shortages that will make it much harder to clear the backlog, which could take five to seven years to clear.

Anita Charlesworth, the Health Foundation’s director of research, described the announcement as a reminder of the scale and enduring impact of the pandemic on the NHS as it takes Covid-19 spending on the NHS to £15 billion this year, similar to the extra cost incurred last year.

She said: “It’s important that the Government recognises that this is only the first instalment of the substantial funding needed to put the NHS on the road to recovery.

“With the pandemic far from over and huge uncertainties about winter pressures, the Government should continue allocating further funding to the NHS for the current year based on need.”

Ms Charlesworth believes that significant additional investment will be needed for the rest of this Parliament and beyond to make progress on the elective care backlog, as patients who were not treated during the pandemic return for care and there is a rising demand for mental health and primary care services.

British Medical Association (BMA) council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul described the money as a welcome “first step to deal with immediate pressures” but added that “the scale of the backlog is gargantuan and unprecedented in the history of the NHS”.

Coronavirus – Wed May 27, 2020
Nurses care for a patient in an intensive care ward (Steve Parsons/PA)

He said there are 5.45 million people on waiting lists, compared with four million before the pandemic, with projections suggesting the number could reach 13 million.

There are also 304,803 patients who have been waiting more than a year, a figure which is 208 times larger than it was pre-pandemic, the BMA estimates, and there were 3.66 million fewer elective procedures and 28.35 million fewer outpatient attendances between April 2020 and June 2021, according to Dr Nagpaul.

He said: “The NHS already had major infrastructure problems before the pandemic, with about 50,000 fewer doctors compared to equivalent EU nations, and we have one of the lowest number of hospital beds per capita in Europe.

“What the NHS desperately needs from this Government is long-term sustained funding to give us the capacity to address the totality of this backlog plus give the NHS a chance to meet ongoing health needs of our nation.”

Dr Susan Crossland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said: “We know this funding falls far short of what NHS leaders have said is required and any amount of money will not help the thousands of exhausted staff this winter, however, we must now ensure whatever funding is provided is used as wisely as possible and on the advice of experts.

“We know acute medicine holds the key to solving many of the system pressures in the NHS – particularly over winter – but that is not feasible when it becomes the ‘go to’ solution for helping out in emergency departments, giving up beds for extra capacity or working in sub-standard facilities.”

Steven McIntosh, of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Extra short-term funding is welcome and must be used to tackle the cancer backlog and prevent further traumatic disruption to cancer care this winter.

“But the Government now needs to deliver investment to ensure cancer care has enough staff and resources in the long term. Without this, people with cancer will suffer the consequences for years to come.”