Ministers are setting up a £500m emergency fund to get thousands of medically fit patients out of hospital as soon as possible in an attempt to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed this winter.
Thérèse Coffey, the new health secretary, unveiled the move in the Commons on Thursday as part of her programme to tackle the growing crisis in the health service, especially patients’ long delays for care.
The new adult social care discharge fund is intended to relieve the pressure on overstretched hospitals in England by ensuring that patients whom doctors have judged well enough to leave can be safely discharged either to their home or into a care home.
More than 13,000 of the 100,000 NHS hospital beds contain “delayed discharge” patients, which has led to A&E units becoming snarled up and long delays in ambulance handovers.
The £500m will go to care home operators and providers of domiciliary care services, which mainly help the frail elderly who live at home with tasks such as eating, dressing and getting out of bed.
In her first speech since becoming the health secretary 16 days ago, Coffey told MPs: “The local NHS will be working with councils with targeted plans on specific care packages to support people being either in their own home or in the wider community.”
However, NHS leaders were concerned that she called the £500m the “downpayment in the rebalancing of funding across health and social care as we develop our longer-term plan”. They fear that the NHS may be increasingly expected to use some of its budget to prop up the ailing and inadequate social care system.
The Guardian disclosed earlier in September that Coffey was examining plans to increase investment in social care in order to free up hospital beds.
However, it is unclear whether the £500m is genuinely new funding from the government or will come from an NHS budget already under strain due to the rising cost of energy and also having to find £1.8bn to part-finance the 5% pay deal for NHS staff.
Mike Padgham, the chair of the Independent Care Group, called the £500m “a little derisory”, given the scale of the problems facing social care providers. “This is a sticking plaster put on a gaping wound by a doctor that doesn’t see how sick the patient is.”
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, claimed that despite Coffey’s proposals – “our plan for patients” – there was “still no plan that comes close to meeting the scale of the challenge; no plan for staffing, no real plan for the NHS”.
Recent official figures showed that vacancies in the NHS in England have soared from 105,000 to 133,000.
Coffey also unveiled plans to allow more dental staff from abroad to work in Britain, reform doctors’ pension tax rules to encourage them to work more hours and pay pharmacists to treat more patients with minor ailments, to relieve the pressure on hard-pressed GPs. There is a new “expectation” that family doctors will see the sickest patients on the day and everyone within two weeks.
Doctors reacted cooly to her plan. “What was missing was an admission that the whole system is broken and needs intensive care. Sticking plasters will just lead to perennial failure,” said Dr Nick Scriven, a former president of the Society for Acute Medicine.
The British Medical Association’s chair of council, Prof Phil Banfield, said that while the plan involved “lofty ambitions and admirable principles”, it was ultimately “unconvincing and amounts to little more than rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”.