An influential committee of MPs has called on the government and NHS to come up with a ‘national health and care recovery plan’ by April to tackle the massive elective care backlog that has been building over the winter because of the pandemic.
The House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee has urged the Department of Health and Social Care to work with NHS England to put in place a proper plan to ease the pressures and waits caused by the service having to deal with the omicron variant of Covid-19.
The combination of spiralling case rates and hospitalisations for Covid-19 and staff sickness and absences has caused operations and elective procedures to be cancelled or postponed, as well as put pressure on access to primary care for many people.
Last month, for example, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine warned that hospitals had cancelled at least 13,000 operations over the previous two months. Even before the winter set in, there had been warnings it could take as long as five years for the NHS to clear the pandemic-related backlog of delayed heart diagnosis, treatment or elective surgery.
The committee’s report, Clearing the backlog caused by the pandemic, said any recovery plan would need to be sensitive to the needs of local populations and incorporate ambitions already laid out in the NHS’s ten-year plan.
“That plan must also set out a clear vision for what ‘success’ in tackling the backlog will look like to patients,” the report recommended.
NHS pressures and Covid
“In setting those metrics for success, the plan must take account of the risk that a reliance on numerical targets alone will deprioritise key services and risk patient safety. Instead, it must embrace a range of indicators to demonstrate that hidden backlogs are also being tackled and compassionate cultures encouraged,” it added.
In response, Dr Jyotsna Vohra, director of policy and public affairs at the Royal Society for Public Health, warned the plan needed to take account of the intense pressure the pandemic has put on NHS staff.
“The NHS is, and will continue to be, under extreme pressure without a more comprehensive recovery plan. NHS staff, many of whom have worked tirelessly for the last two years, are suffering from burn-out and exhaustion as a result of the pandemic’s physical and mental demands,” she said.
“It is time for public health services to receive appropriate funding and investment, so that we can reduce preventable illnesses, keep people in good health and out of hospital,” Dr Vohra added.
Staff pressures were also highlighted by Anita Charlesworth, director of research at the think-tank The Health Foundation.
“NHS staff are overstretched and exhausted having gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic. The government needs to be realistic about the time and resources required to recover services,” she said.
“A credible recovery strategy is desperately needed, and it needs to be backed up by sufficient funding and staff,” Charlesworth added.