Theresa May urged to get a grip on NHS as winter crisis spirals

Call for PM to make emergency statement to Commons as doctors compare chaos to the dark days of 1990s

Theresa May is under intense pressure to announce an emergency NHS rescue plan to parliament – amid a chorus of warnings that hospitals and GP services across England have finally reached breaking point.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are demanding the prime minister, or Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, appear before MPs on Monday – when parliament returns from the Christmas break – as doctors and medical organisations said the winter crisis was reminiscent of the chaos that engulfed the service in the dark days of the 1990s. Former Tory health minister and practising NHS doctor Dan Poulter said it was essential that ministers disclosed the extent of the problems, because there was an urgent need to focus minds and build momentum behind the search for a cross-party solution.

In a further sign of spiralling pressures on health and social care services, the president of the Society for Acute Medicine, Dr Mark Holland, called on May to convene a special version of Cobra, the committee that is summoned only in national emergencies.

While Department of Health sources said that they understood the concerns, they said ministers had addressed the problems by announcing more funding for social care and the NHS. They also said the NHS was equipped to deal with winter pressures that they said were no more serious than last year. The demands for a plan of action and statement to parliament came after the British Red Cross, which has been providing help to dozens of overstretched hospitals, said the situation affecting the NHS in England was a “humanitarian crisis”.

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn has called on the PM to address the Commons. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

NHS England figures have shown cancelled routine operations at record levels and acute services under intolerable strain. Evidence has come to light of patients dying because of long waits for care, chronic shortages of beds and lack of staff. Jeremy Corbyn said May must go before the Commons to “set out to the British people how she plans to fix her failure on the NHS”.

Whitehall officials said that May, who is planning a major speech on Monday that will address mental health, had no plan to go to the Commons. Former Lib Dem health minister Norman Lamb said that was unacceptable. “The situation is deteriorating. It is not sustainable. The government has a responsibility to be held to account.”

Leading figures working in the NHS and social care, together with the Conservative-controlled Local Government Association, have been warning for months that the failure to provide sufficient services at home and in the community for those requiring social care has added to pressure on hospital beds with disastrous knock-on affects for other patients requiring acute or routine treatment. GPs have also reported unprecedented levels of demand.

Poulter welcomed the recent announcements of extra funding for social care and the NHS, and May’s focus on mental heath, but said it was time for honesty about the size of the problems. “Despite the welcome increases, the extra money has barely scratched the surface of the problems facing the NHS. It is sometimes difficult for those in charge to admit that there are problems but it is vital that we are now honest about the difficulties that the NHS and social care are facing, because only by being honest will we create the pressure we need for cross-party action and a solution.”

Holland, a consultant in acute medicine in Manchester, said: “The way things are going we’re heading back to the bad old days of the 1990s … The consistent message from so many professional bodies must be heard by the secretary of state for health and the prime minister. The rhetoric that we have a plan and that more money has been pumped into the system holds no water because it is patently clear to everybody that pockets of hospitals are now struggling to cope.”

Labour’s health spokesman, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “Theresa May must commit to bring forward an extra £700m of social care money now to help hospitals cope this winter and pledge a new funding settlement for health and social care at the next budget so this year’s crisis never happens again.”

Keith Willett, director of acute care for NHS England, rejected the Red Cross claims. “On the international scale of a humanitarian crisis, I don’t think the NHS is at that point. Clearly, demand is at the highest level ever. But also our planning is probably more comprehensive than it has ever been. In many ways, this is a level of pressure we have not seen before and the workload that the NHS is being asked to shoulder in terms of medical treatment and personal care is very high.

“There are several reasons for that. There is winter and many more people have breathing and heart problems, but we know it is also very difficult at the moment and social care and community services are not able to react fast enough to free up beds to keep up the flow through hospitals.”

The chairman of the BMA council, Mark Porter, said: “The intervention from the Red Cross highlights the enormous pressure the NHS is facing as conditions in hospitals across the country are reaching a dangerous level. The government should be ashamed that it has got the point where volunteers have been necessary to ease the burden.”

A DoH spokeswoman said it had given the NHS an extra £400m to help the service cope with additional demand.


Toby Helm and Denis Campbell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Doctor’s searing chronicle of NHS piles pressure on Hunt
Medics say ‘powerful portrayal of life on the frontline’ will deepen concern for health service

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

01, Jul, 2017 @9:00 PM

Article image
GPs tell patients to ‘get an Uber’ as NHS ambulance delays hit record level
Some practices in England encouraging stable patients with serious conditions to make their own way to hospital

Jon Ungoed-Thomas

27, Nov, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Poor lose doctors as wealthy gain them, new figures reveal
Number of GPs opting to work in deprived areas is falling, despite £20k ‘golden hellos’

Denis Campbell

19, May, 2018 @11:04 PM

Article image
Poor performance of A&Es linked to winding down of NHS helpline
With fewer staff on the phones, NHS Direct and its replacement helpline have been sending more callers to hospitals, writes Daniel Boffey 

Daniel Boffey, policy editor

18, May, 2013 @7:33 PM

Article image
Theresa May cannot ignore NHS crisis or brush off critics
Figures show health service performance is at an all-time low and the hospitals crisis is out of control

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

07, Jan, 2017 @10:00 PM

Article image
NHS chief tells ministers: face up to the pay crisis
Chief executive of hospital trusts group issues warning that nursing morale and recruitment will be hit

Toby Helm and Denis Campbell

20, May, 2017 @8:23 PM

Article image
GPs should do more to take pressure off A&E departments, says May
Prime minister wants surgeries to offer a seven-day service, but is accused of trying to scapegoat family doctors for chaos in NHS hospitals

Heather Stewart and Denis Campbell

13, Jan, 2017 @11:56 PM

Article image
The future of the NHS and social care – for better or worse | Letters
Letters: Although people are allowed to respond to glossy consultation documents, they wonder whether anyone is really listening


25, Nov, 2016 @6:08 PM

Article image
NHS's Simon Stevens defended by MPs in health funding row
Health service chief to appear before MPs amid reports of tensions with Downing Street over ‘unenthusiastic’ attitude to cuts

Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

11, Jan, 2017 @10:09 AM

Article image
GPs working longer hours won’t ease the pressure on the NHS | Letters
Letters: Appointments at 7.45pm on Saturday or 8am on Sunday may suit those in work but they are not the people arriving at A&E departments


15, Jan, 2017 @6:36 PM