Matt Hancock has taken the heat out of a simmering row between the NHS and the government by handing the health service in England an extra £6.6bn to help it cope with the impact of the pandemic.
NHS England will use the money to tackle the huge backlog of care that built up while much non-Covid care was suspended during the pandemic and also to keep hospitals free of infections.
The health secretary told MPs in an oral statement in the House of Commons the money would also help hospitals discharge patients safely back to their own homes or care homes.
The £6.6bn is less than the £8bn that Sir Simon Stevens, NHS England’s chief executive, told MPs last week the service needed to cover the extra costs the pandemic had generated.
The sum has been agreed after detailed negotiations in recent weeks between NHS England, Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care and the Treasury. However, the uplift is only for the first six months of the new financial year, from April to September. The Treasury is likely to provide further funds later this year to tide the NHS over between October and next March.
Stevens welcomed the announcement saying it “provides welcome funding certainty for hospitals and frontline NHS services looking out to autumn, meaning the NHS can now plan and prepare for the year ahead”.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Trust leaders will be relieved that the NHS budget for the first half of next year has now been finalised. But it is extraordinary that this has been left to just 13 days before the beginning of the new financial year.
“Trust leaders have been incredibly frustrated by delays over finalising the NHS funding for 2021-22. This has disrupted planning for another tough year as trusts seek to deal with the backlog of care that has built up during the pandemic alongside the ongoing challenge from Covid-19.”
The Treasury will give the extra money to Hancock’s department to pass on to NHS England. It is additional to the £169.1bn the DHSC was scheduled to receive in 2021-22, a figure which the Treasury confirmed as recently as the budget on 3 March.
It means NHS England’s budget for the coming year will now be £145.7bn and not £139.1bn as planned.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, gave the NHS £3bn extra in Covid-related funding in his autumn statement last November to pay for more operations, extra mental health services and new scanners to help modernise the service’s ageing diagnostic infrastructure.
However, since then Stevens had been lobbying for the NHS to get much more. He pointedly reminded MPs in his evidence last week that while Sunak had used the budget to confirm an increase in test and trace’s funding and extension of the furlough scheme until the autumn, he had not unveiled any extra cash for the health service.
That omission led organisations such as the NHS Confederation, which represents health service trusts in England, to warn that the chancellor was running the risk of breaking his pledge, made last March as the pandemic was unfolding, to give the service “whatever it takes” to tackle Covid.
Stevens also told MPs that the £1bn of the £3bn that was allocated specifically for elective surgery was merely a downpayment on the true sum needed. He said £1bn was “a very important start to enable hospitals to begin to make inroads into that set of waiting list operations that are required”.
Ministers are concerned that public frustration around long waits for hospital treatment – the waiting list hit a record 4.59 million last week – could pose difficulties for them in the months ahead.