Rishi Sunak demands 'bold and radical' action to ease pressure on UK health services

Crisis has brought reports of patients being treated in cupboards

Health Secretary Steve Barclay arrives at Downing Street for the emergency meeting on improving NHS performance. PA
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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Saturday he was determined to ease the pressure on Britain's health service as patients struggle for help.

Mr Sunak hosted health bosses at Downing Street for a “recovery forum” as strikes, staff shortages and long waits for ambulances push the system to breaking point.

The crisis has brought reports of patients being treated in cupboards, hospitals running out of oxygen canisters and staff breaking down in tears.

Critics called the discussions a talking shop that would fail to ease the pressures on frontline services after “years of inaction”, even as Mr Sunak demanded “bold and radical” action.

Health workers, including nurses and ambulance crew, are in dispute over pay and conditions that have led to a number of strike days over winter.

Seasonal flu and Covid-19 outbreaks are adding to the pressure on the state-funded NHS.

Cutting waiting lists was one of five pledges made by Mr Sunak aimed at turning around the Conservative Party's dire poll ratings.

Mr Sunak told health and social care leaders he recognised the “tough time” they had experienced over the past couple of years.

“During the pandemic we had to bring boldness and radicalism to how we did things in order to get through,” he said.

“I think we need that same bold and radical approach now because a business-as-usual mindset won’t fix the challenges we face.”

Consultant physician James Dunbar, who attended the meeting, said he was “confident that action will be taken” but not optimistic the crisis would be dealt with before spring.

“These are difficult problems to fix though, so I think it’s unlikely we’ll have it sorted by the end of this winter,” he said.

Downing Street has committed to publishing recovery plans to improve ambulance and A&E waiting times “in the coming weeks”.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said those at the meeting looked at potential solutions such as virtual wards, whereby patients are monitored remotely.

“Innovation is crucial to solving the challenges facing the NHS,” he said.

Mr Sunak's office said the meeting brought together local NHS bosses, clinical experts and other organisations providing health and social care.

The British Medical Association, the trade union for doctors, was not invited to participate.

“It tells you everything you need to know about this government’s approach that the only people not invited to an NHS recovery forum are the NHS workforce,” its chief, Prof Philip Banfield, said.

“He [the Prime Minister] needs to sit down with us to discuss pay — and he needs to do it now.”

Prof Banfield said Mr Sunak needed to negotiate with striking health workers because “any recovery plan is dead on arrival unless it addresses the workforce crisis crushing our health service”.

Ambulance workers and nurses went on strike last month, and junior doctors will vote on protest action from Monday.

Mr Sunak is threatening to bring in anti-strike legislation requiring minimum service levels in health, education and transport.

The NHS Confederation, a body of health organisations, has accused the government of presiding over “years of inaction and managed decline”.

“NHS leaders will welcome the prime minister’s focus on helping to solve the challenges. But the reality is that there are no silver bullets here,” chief executive Matthew Taylor said.

“There is a widening gap between the NHS’s capacity and the demand it is facing on a daily basis. We cannot afford to go in to another winter with the NHS in such a fragile state.”

A government press release published after Mr Sunak's speech on Wednesday said NHS waiting lists would start to come down in March.

But that part of the pledge appeared to be quickly dropped, with the wording changed to remove any timetable.

Updated: January 08, 2023, 10:03 AM