The NHS should brace itself for a “remarkably hard” winter, MPs have heard.
Leading medics have expressed “fear” over the forthcoming winter as the NHS grapples with a record backlog of care, a potentially bad flu season and coronavirus cases.
Meanwhile the blood tube shortages could also be having a big impact on the waiting list, MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee have heard.
Dr Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said that a difficult winter in the health service may also result in a growing waiting list.
“During winter what we’d normally see is that the medical wards get full we spill-over and the ward becomes a ‘Winter Ward’ is normally an orthopaedic ward,” he said.
“So immediately (surgeons) cannot operate on people who are on the waiting list.
“I do not see that being any easier this winter, and if anything, I think it’s going to be much worse this winter because of Covid infection prevention but also we’re expecting a bad flu season this year.
“So I think that the £5.4 billion funding is fantastic news, but let’s be under no illusions this winter is going to be remarkably hard, and it’s going to impact waiting lists, probably more than anywhere else.”
On the shortage of blood tubes, he added: “Clearly at the moment, you know, getting blood tests, is a real problem.
“We do 1.7 million blood tests a week in the NHS, that number has been significantly curtailed because of the blood bottle shortage.
“So it seems likely that there are going to be added complications in which will lead to further delays in diagnosis, you can’t start a treatment and therefore get off the waiting list until you have a diagnosis.”
Emergency medicine specialists have also expressed concern over the forthcoming winter months.
Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: “We’re in a real pinch point at the moment so we’re equally fearful of winter.
“We are seeing levels of crowding back in our departments over the summer that are worse than people have ever seen.
“We were really struggling (before the pandemic) and we’re really struggling again now.”
She added: “The last bad flu winter resulted in all elective surgery being cancelled.
“So how are we going to get through this winter, when we really don’t want to cancel elective surgery, unless we can sweat, every bit of the assets making sure that every bit (of the NHS) is working as effectively as it possibly can.”
MPs heard that many people on the waiting list are concerned over a lack of communication while they are waiting for care.
Dr Goddard added: “Many of these problems would be resolved with more people because there would be more people to talk to, so patients can get that reassurance in need.
“And time and time again, talking to patients, it’s not knowing, it’s not hearing, which are the things that cause the problems and it causes a huge amount of mental stress.”
Dr Henderson added: “We understand that people are wanting information, and when they’re finding it difficult to find information that goes to the place where the lights are on.
“And so almost inevitably we will have seen patients who have questions that unfortunately we can’t answer who will come to (A&E).
“What we need is to be able to make sure that we’ve got the ability to answer those questions in the right place, otherwise it’s very ineffective system.”
She added: “I cannot help a patient about a very specialist drug therapy, that they’re getting from some oncologist in my unit.
“I have not got the knowledge to deal with that they shouldn’t need to come near the emergency department to get that advice.”
Meanwhile Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of the NHS in England, urged people to come forward if they needed care.
She told a parliamentary session examining the Health and Care Bill: “We just don’t know really how Covid is going to play out over the course of the next few months and years and one of the things that I know colleagues have talked about is that a lot of people didn’t come forward for care over the course of the past two years.
“One of the messages I would like to just give again is that anyone who is concerned about symptoms, the NHS is absolutely open for business, please do come forward and seek diagnosis, treatment, support for anyone who needs it.”