New data indicates that the previous winter was among the worst on record for NHS performance, despite the climate actually being rather less than challenging.
The critical month of December featured some of the mildest weather on record, while temperatures throughout January were normal, and there were also no major outbreaks of either flu or norovirus.
Yet analysis of NHS data conducted by the British Medical Association suggested that the NHS in England is “unlikely to recover from the pressure it faces during the winter”.
And this could lead to a systemic crisis in 2017.
This latest concern about the winter performance of the NHS follows close on the back from a speech at the LMC conference by GPC chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul.
During this presentation, Nagpaul indicated his belief that the NHS was allowing its “constitutional promise of the the 18-week target” for treatment to be breached.
This is considered one of the most fundamental targets for the NHS to comply with.
Previous research has suggested that the elevated levels of pressure across the healthcare system, combined with rising costs in acute care, is strongly correlated with systematic underfunding of general practice.
Numerous authoritative voices have already spoken out on the financial and resource difficulties in general practice, while recruitment to this key area of the NHS system has also proved problematical.
BMA analysis indicates that around 65% of hospital trusts reported a major alert that they could not cope with due to heightened demand between December 2016 and March 2017.
The problems contributed to a surge in GP workload over the period, with practices in many areas facing additional consultations to explain delays to patients or allay fears as patients waited for hospital consultations to take place.
Commenting on the issue, BMA chair Dr Mark Porter suggested that the figures are particularly worrying.
“These figures show that hospitals have just endured one of the worst winters on record, with patients facing unacceptably long waits for treatment. These delays are having a profound impact on patients’ experience of the NHS and mean frontline staff are left working under extremely difficult conditions.”
And Porter went on to explain that it is important to understand the context in which the data was collated.
“This new analysis is particularly stark because it wasn’t a bad winter in terms of external factors. The weather was mild and there were no widespread outbreaks of flu or norovirus. The pressure the NHS is under is purely down to bad political choices, with years of chronic underfunding and investment in services failing to keep up with patient demand.”
Meanwhile, Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called on the electorate to respond to these worrying figures in the forthcoming general election.
“This is a stark reminder why the state of the NHS is one of the biggest issues in this election. The truth is seven years of underfunding in the NHS mean hospitals are now routinely too full. Patients deserve better. Labour is committed to investing in the NHS and social care to reduce pressures on hospitals and make sure patients never have to suffer a winter like this ever again.”