Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is facing “a winter like no other” as backlogs and patient waiting times reach historic levels, a former health minister has said.
Lord Ara Darzi, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, suggested the public health service could be reduced to a threadbare system, saying it “is in danger of being ossified”.
He blamed government inaction and Brexit for the "grim scenario" the NHS is in.
The independent peer, who is co-chair of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s commission on health and prosperity, suggested an urgent course of action is needed to save the NHS from further disarray.
At the IPPR’s health conference in London on Thursday, he emphasised that he oversees “a commission on health and prosperity” rather than “a commission on sickness and poverty”.
“Some might consider that more appropriate given the state of the country today,” he added. “A cost-of-living crisis, an energy crisis, an economy hobbled by Brexit, an NHS facing the longest-ever waiting lists, the biggest-ever backlog of care and a winter ahead like no other.
“It’s a grim scenario," he said. “But there's another way of looking at it. Much revered and long established institutions such as the NHS are in danger of being ossified.”
But he stressed that it was not all doom and gloom because “the best chance for achieving change comes in moments of crisis”, adding that there exists an opportunity for a new approach.
“With the right policies, and enough ambition, we could become a healthier, happier and more prosperous and more secure nation,” he said. He said the commission takes the view that health equality is vital to help the UK economy grow.
Since the launch of the IPPR project this year, research has shown that the labour market is down by more than a million workers compared with pre-pandemic levels. Cases of long Covid, the disruption to healthcare services during the pandemic and mental health were the reasons behind the missing workers, he said.
A report published by the commission on Wednesday suggested that about 2.5 million people were out of work due to long-term sickness. The figure is a rise of 250 per cent compared with estimates in April 2022 and the highest since records began.
Lord Darzi said rather than being struck down with one ailment, those unable to work are more likely to be suffering from several illnesses.
“Their health needs are increasingly complicated,” he said. “The vast majority have multiple conditions and a quarter have six or more conditions.”
His comments came after it emerged that ambulance services across much of the UK are in a state of disorder, according to new figures that said one in seven ambulances in England are delayed by more than an hour.
The average response time last month for ambulances in England — not including London — dealing with the most urgent incidents was nine minutes and 26 seconds, down from nine minutes and 56 seconds the previous month. The target is seven minutes.
Strikes among nurses and ambulance workers are set to add further fuel to the fire. The NHS will be hit by mass walkouts of nurses and ambulance workers over the Christmas period as part of what looks likely to be a winter of discontent among public sector workers.
Danielle Jefferies, from the King’s Fund think tank, described the service as “bursting at the seams”. Leading doctors in October warned the government that the NHS was at risk of "completely collapsing".
The figures from NHS England were released on Thursday as the government contends with widespread industrial action. The walkouts on December 21 will involve ambulance staff across most of England and Wales.
Non-life-threatening calls — not emergency requests — will be affected by the protest action co-ordinated by Unison, the GMB and Unite, the three main ambulance unions.
Soldiers are being trained to drive ambulances as the government prepares for the strikes. The strikes will affect NHS services around the same period as mass walkouts by nurses. The Royal College of Nursing said members would strike on December 15 and 20 in parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The government has been criticised for failing to resolve disputes with unions over pay and working conditions.
Ms Jeffries said the winter season looked likely to be particularly harsh for the NHS due to Covid-19 cases, cold and flu, and Strep A infections.
“All combined, this puts immense strain on staff in health and care services who are having to go above and beyond to support patients,” she said.
“Sadly, there are no immediate solutions or quick fixes. These are widespread issues that will require actions across the whole health and care system and it will take time for any improvements to be felt by patients.”
Chris Hopson, chief strategy officer of NHS England, highlighted "so many instances that we have at the moment where, despite best efforts at the front line, NHS staff aren’t able to provide the quality of care they would want to see, but there is a clear plan to address that”.
"We know we need to transform the NHS for the future. So there is a clear plan but, yes, we are under very significant pressure.”