The National Health Service (NHS) is on the brink of disaster and the government must immediately prepare for an existential crisis this winter. The service is fast approaching what is likely to be the most challenging period in its 74-year history. A perfect storm of acute pressures driven by Covid-19, a resurgent flu epidemic and the indirect effect of the cost-of-living crisis will combine with the unprecedented elective-care backlog and a workforce that is already depleted and exhausted.
The new prime minister will be announced on 5 September, leaving little time to prepare before winter. While Rishi Sunak has pledged to put the country on a “crisis footing” from the first day of taking office, there has been little detailed discussion between the two shortlisted Conservative candidates on plans to address the impending health emergency the UK faces.
The NHS and social-care system is already in real trouble, as seen by the record ambulance-response times, growing waiting lists, increased staff absences and workforce burnout. With circumstances expected to deteriorate further over the coming months, the government must act immediately to avoid catastrophe. This call for immediate action has been echoed by the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee Jeremy Hunt.
Considering the situation beyond the NHS, both resurgent Covid-19 and flu pose a significant threat to the labour market and the economy at a time of growing economic instability. A recent report from the Bank of England found a staggering 17 per cent of the UK’s working population was self-reporting as long-term sick in the first quarter of 2022, with Long Covid making a growing contribution to this figure. It is vital therefore that we minimise the spread of Covid-19 and flu this winter.
Last week, NHS England set out a package of measures to boost capacity ahead of winter, including plans to increase available hospital beds, bolster 111- and 999-response staff, expand international recruitment and provide more funding for mental-health services. While these are all helpful policies, they will be insufficient and the government must go further to support the NHS and help it manage the unprecedented pressures it faces this winter.