The Telegraph has reported that NHS hospitals have been ordered to hand over swathes of operations to the private sector to ease an impending winter crisis, according to leaked memos.
NHS trusts have been told to take specific measures to dramatically reduce bed occupancy levels, in an attempt to ensure that wards can cope as pressures mount. Hospitals have been instructed by health officials to discharge thousands of patients in a bid to reduce crowding
Patients groups have called the current situation “frightening”, while charities have described the measures as an “extremely worrying” reflection of a healthcare system under “extraordinary pressure”.
The instructions from health officials come as hospitals are the most crowded they have ever been in the run-up to winter.
Hospitals have been ordered to “maximise elective activity” in the run-up to Christmas using the independent sector and schemes which pay NHS consultants lucrative overtime rates. The plans have been drawn up so NHS trusts can cut the number of operations they perform – freeing up more beds for urgent patients – without lengthening waiting lists.
Under such schemes, consultants have been paid rates of up to £1,000 a shift. Local doctors groups are being asked to establish “A&E Delivery Boards” and to draw up rotas of medics able to respond to 111 requests for urgent care at home, which is currently reserved for those who are housebound.
But the schemes and heavy use of the private sector is likely to add to financial pressures on the NHS, which last year recorded the highest deficit in its history.
Latest official figures – for the three months ending in September – show NHS trusts have the highest levels of occupancy ever recorded in the run-up to winter with an average of 89.1 per cent of acute and general beds full, compared with 87 per cent in the same period last year.
Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the British Medical Association, which has criticised the “creeping privatisation of the NHS” said last night: “This is evidence of an over-stretched healthcare system that the government has failed to properly fund, which must outsource patient care to private providers to cope with predictable patient demand”.
Why is the NHS under so much pressure?
- A nationwide shortage of GPs means waiting times to see a family doctor have increased;
- An ageing population – there are more than 1 million people over the age of 65 compared to 5 years ago;
- Cuts to budgets for social care. While the NHS budget has been protected, social services for home helps and other care have fallen by 11 per cent in five years;
- This has led to “bed blocking” – elderly people with no medical need to be in hospital are stuck there. Latest quarterly show occupancy rates are the highest they have ever been at this stage of the year, while days lost to bed blocking are up by one third in a year;
- A rising numbers of patients are turning up in A&E – around four million more in the last decade, partly fuelled by the ageing population.
Whilst it is helpful that special measures are being implemented for the Winter ‘crisis period’, it is obvious that more long term and effective measures are needed.
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