England is suffering its worst flu season for a decade, the health secretary has said, as he sought to acknowledge “severe pressures” in the NHS and expressed “regret” for some patients receiving poor care.
Steve Barclay said 5,100 people were in hospital with flu – a huge rise compared with the figure of 50 last year. He said the rise happened “quickly and early”, with a sevenfold increase between November and December.
It came at the worst possible time for the NHS, when GPs were at their most strained and being forced to limit services due to staff sicknesses, Barclay added.
At the same time, he said, delayed discharges – people who were medically fit to leave hospital but unable to do so due to blockages in the social care system – stood at about 13,000 people a day, about double the level during the first few months of the Covid pandemic.
Despite criticism of the government’s handling of the NHS crisis over its refusal to up an offer for striking nurses and ambulance workers to receive more pay, Barclay made no mention of talks to avert future strikes in a statement to parliament on Monday afternoon.
“Every cancelled operation, delayed appointment and ambulance disruption due to strikes could have been avoided if he had just agreed to talk to NHS staff about pay,” claimed the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting.
To head off criticism the government was not aware of the scale of issues in the NHS after more reports of those who have suffered due to long wait times for ambulances and A&E treatment over Christmas, Barclay acknowledged there had been failings.
“I and the government regret the experience for some patients and staff in emergency care has not been acceptable in recent weeks,” he said.
Barclay confirmed plans to block-book beds in residential homes to release about 2,500 medically fit patients in order to free up space in hospitals. This would quicken the speed with which those waiting in ambulances could be admitted to hospital and in turn free up more ambulances to respond to callouts, he told MPs.
One Tory MP broke ranks to criticise the government over its handling of the crisis. Edward Leigh asked Barclay what “our long-term plan” was for helping fix structural issues with the NHS and social care. He added: “We can’t leave the Labour party to have a long-term plan and we don’t.”
The health secretary told him there was already an elective recovery plan and that ministers were working on a workforce plan as well.
The biggest not-for-profit care home chain has backed demands for higher fees for using care homes to ease the NHS beds crisis. Methodist Homes (MHA), which looks after close to 20,000 people in a nationwide network of care homes, said fees needed to rise by up to £600 a week per place – almost double the rate paid by many local authorities.
Care England, which represents the largest for-profit care companies, also said its members needed £1,500 a week to properly help those patients.
“As things stand there are 165,000 staff vacancies in social care and if we don’t have enough care workers, then we simply cannot take in more residents and look after them safely,” said Sam Monaghan, the chief executive of MHA. “New discharge plans need to come alongside a long-term, sustainable approach to funding social care.”
Meanwhile, council social care leaders said the emergency £200m discharge fund had come too late. Warnings about the need for more funding this winter have been made since July 2022, according to the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass). It also said the extra money handed to the NHS to block-book care beds would mean councils finding themselves in competition for beds with health boards.
Sarah McClinton, the president of Adass, said she feared people being discharged from hospital could end up “inappropriately placed and then remaining in residential provision indefinitely”. She urged as many people as possible to be cared for in their own homes.
“We must recognise that long-term, sustainable investment is needed in primary and community-based care and support and for family carers,” she said. “We must stop thinking that pots of crisis funding are the solution.”
David Fothergill, the chair of the cross-party Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, echoed that criticism. He described the initiative as a “sticking plaster” on the longstanding crisis in social care and £200m as “piecemeal funding”.
Dr Adrian Boyle, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, welcomed the use of care home beds to reduce the intense strain on hospitals. But it was “only a short-term solution to the immediate crisis” and longer-term solutions to prevent overcrowding were needed, he said.