NHS hasn't improved enough since Mid Staffs, says inquiry lawyer

Robert Francis, whose report uncovered poor care in hospital trust, says pressures on health service generally are ‘pretty bad’

Current conditions in the NHS ”sound familiar” to those that existed during the Mid Staffordshire scandal, according to the lawyer who chaired the inquiry into the hospital trust.

Sir Robert Francis QC said the health service was being hit by a combination of financial pressures and high demand.

The barrister, whose 2013 report uncovered poor care in Mid Staffordshire, said the pressures the health service was under were “pretty bad”.

His remarks came after a week of scrutiny of the NHS, with performance figures showing a raft of missed targets and record waiting times, leading health secretary Jeremy Hunt to say conditions were “completely unacceptable”.

Francis told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday: “I think they are pretty bad. We’ve got a virtual storm of financial pressures, increased demand, difficulties finding staffing, and pressure on the service to continue delivering. And some of that sounds quite familiar – as it was, those were the conditions pertaining at the time of Mid Staffordshire.

“Things have changed since then, so the very fact that we’re talking about this today the way that we are, the very fact that the secretary of state says things are unacceptable, shows that there’s a greater level of transparency.

“So people are talking about the problems in a way that they weren’t before. But the system is running extremely hot at the moment and it’s only working at all because of the almost superhuman efforts of the staff of the NHS, and it can’t carry on like that indefinitely without something badly going, or risking going badly wrong.”

He said there were now better safeguards in place and problems should be spotted before it reached the proportions of the Mid Staffs scandal between 2005-09, during which time as many as 1,200 patients may have died after they were “routinely neglected”.

Francis, a non-executive director at the Care Quality Commission, said more funding would be a “sticking plaster” and there needed to be a change in the way the service is delivered, as well as addressing the adult social care crisis.

Figures emerged last week showing that numbers of A&E patients seen within the target of four hours fell to a record low of 86% in December, while those waiting longer than 12 hours to be admitted to a hospital bed doubled to more than 2,500 in 2016.

The number of people waiting more than two months to start cancer treatment after an urgent referral was at a record high of 25,157, and the proportion of patients receiving hospital treatment within 18 weeks fell below 90% for the first time since 2011.

Separately, two health groups said surgeons were “kicking their heels” because of delays to operations caused by a shortage of beds.

Clare Marx, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, and Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, blamed cuts aimed at driving productivity for causing greater inefficiency in some areas.

They said the “shocking waste” of surgeons’ time was partly down to the lack of social care for elderly patients outside hospitals. In a letter to the Sunday Times [£], they said: “Because of bed shortages, staff including surgeons are now sometimes left kicking their heels, waiting for beds to become available so they can operate.

“Too often managers, nurses and doctors waste time trying to find somewhere to look after patients. At a time when the NHS is being told to make the most of its resources, this is a shocking waste.”

Reacting to the health groups’ comments, an NHS England spokesman said: “The level of cancellations remains low at just 1% of the millions of operations performed in the NHS each year.”


Jamie Grierson and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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