A senior medic has called for the government to put “substance before soundbite” when it comes to the realities of the effects of COVID-19 on the NHS.
Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said despite regular references to creating “spare“ capacity, this was far from an accurate reflection and distracted from the “worrying” long-term picture.
“Only a week ago the health secretary stated confidently he has always ensured NHS capacity has met demand but that is quite frankly an absurd manipulation of the truth,” he said.
“This type of spin won’t wash as, to be clear, the so-called “capacity“ being described of late has only been made possible because hospitals have adapted to the pandemic and because seriously unwell people have not been seeking medical care.
“However, what the reality means is that thousands of planned procedures and appointments have been delayed, while those who have not sought urgent care will be attending hospitals in much worse conditions – so there are consequences.
“The utopia of an NHS that has bundles of spare capacity and can cope with anything is a fallacy and to use the pandemic as an opportunity to claim demand has always been met is frankly outrageous.”
Dr Scriven said there was growing concern about the pressures on hospitals and staff when non-COVID activity begins to return and COVID patients continue to be cared for by staff who were already stretched long before the pandemic.
“As the number of non-COVID patients slowly increases it will strain hospitals who will still need to maintain separate areas for COVID and non-COVID to ensure minimal chance of infection in hospitals and that also means stress on staffing levels which are already stretched.
”One of my main concerns is staff resilience. People have now been working outside their usual work patterns or outside their normal hours – often with highly disruptive working hours – for more than a month.
“If or when we get either the second wave of COVID and/or a surge in poorly people with other health needs who have so far tried to avoid coming to hospitals, staff will have little reserves unless we see far better staff wellbeing management from the top.”
Dr Scriven said that it was not appropriate or fair to “insult people’s intelligence” by making “misleading claims” about the ability of the NHS to manage demand.
“Ultimately, despite what rhetoric we hear from the Secretary of State or other ministers or attempts to divert public attention, the pandemic does not wipe out the history books.
“The issues that existed long before COVID – chronic underfunding, a crisis in social care, 40,000 nursing vacancies, 10,000 consultant vacancies – are all still present.
“What we need is to see is government facing up to the realities of this and delivering comprehensive plans of how it expects to see the NHS manage the return of planned care alongside ongoing COVID presentations combined with pre-existing dilemmas that they’ve still yet to resolve.”