NHS faces slow road to recovery following Covid-19 pandemic
That is the message from an NHS Confederation report which warns that the health service in England faces an uphill battle as it restarts normal medical and surgical services.
This challenge of managing Covid patients alongside cancer, stroke and cardiac services will be made harder due to reduced capacity, says the report.
Capacity will be around 60% of normal because of the need for infection control measures, including the need to adhere to social distancing measures for patients and staff.
Among the key challenges will be dealing with the backlog of treatment that has been put on hold during COVID-19, with the waiting list for routine procedures already at more than 4 million now certain to rise significantly.
As the pandemic moves from an ‘emergency’ response to ongoing care and rehabilitation, patients will require social care, respiratory, psychological, and other treatment in the community.
Analysis shared with the NHS Confederation suggests that the NHS waiting list could reach 10 million by the end of the year, possibly higher if there is a second wave of COVID-19 and a lack of treatment or a vaccine.
Doing all of this, health leaders will have to support many exhausted and traumatised staff and stay prepared for a possible second peak.
They remain concerned that further steps to ease the lockdown must have a robust and clear rationale and be communicated with proper assurances to NHS staff and the wider public. This will include assurances about the effectiveness of the test and trace programme and adequate supplies of protective equipment as services restart.
In an accompanying letter to the Prime Minister, the NHS Confederation warns that it will not be possible to simply ‘switch on’ NHS services immediately.
It calls on the government to manage expectations about how quickly key patient services can be restored and to communicate this clearly if public confidence in the service is to be maintained.
Other suggestions include:
- An extension of emergency funding across all sectors of the NHS, given significant extra demand across all services.
- Putting in place an ongoing arrangement with the private sector – this will be vital to provide capacity to respond to the backlog of treatment.
- A review of the impact of COVID-19 on the NHS and social care workforce given the unprecedented pressure staff have been under.
- A delay in returning to the inspection regime of the CQC to take into account the positive changes that have been achieved as a result of the lighter touch approach to regulation that has been in place during the pandemic.
- A call for assurance that there will be a fully operational and robust test, track and trace system, as well as appropriate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), as services are resumed.
The NHS Confederation has published its report ahead of updated guidance from NHS England and NHS Improvement on how the next phase of the NHS response to the pandemic will be managed.
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, called for a “robust plan” and extra funding, particularly for rehabilitation services in the community.
He said: “Political leaders have a vital role to play in reassuring the public that every step possible is being taken to manage the virus, while safely bringing back services that had to be paused.
“Retaining, public confidence and trust in the NHS will be vital over the next few months.”