As winter viruses and industrial action pile extra pressure on England’s already overstretched public health system, patients are waiting longer than ever to access crucial emergency care.
Ambulances and emergency departments have struggling to see patients in a timely manner for months as “a perfect storm of pressures” have squeezed services.
Experts have criticised the government strongly for the crises currently engulfing the health service, putting much of the blame not just on Covid-19, but on “political choices” made over several years.
On Monday, the government released a plan to try and recover the country’s beleaguered urgent and emergency care performance.
The public health system — National Health Service England — will take a number of steps to try and shorten ambulance and emergency room waiting times, which hit historic levels last month.
The plan aims to see three-quarters of emergency room patients either admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours by March next year, as well as speed up ambulance response times for serious but non-life-threatening calls.
Key measures from the new plan include:
5,000 more beds in hospitals
Leaders want to grow bed capacity by 5,000 over the next year: a significant increase that will likely require more staff as well as new buildings.
According to industry journal HSJ, this could involve moving around 4,000 beds already set up in inappropriate settings to meet high levels of demand, as well as 1,000 new general acute beds.
With traditional wards nearing capacity across the country, hospitals have set up beds in corridors and other informal areas to ensure they can still house new patients.
The beds could be moved to existing “appropriate” hospital areas, or to new wards housed in quickly assembled and “flexible” modular buildings, according to the plan.
More ambulances and mental health facilities
Around 800 new ambulances will be ordered over the next financial year, including 100 specialist mental health vehicles.
But many of these will replace existing vehicles, so it is not yet clear by exactly how much the overall ambulance fleet will grow.
In addition, more than 150 new mental health projects — including safe spaces like crisis cafes and crisis houses — will be set up to help serve those experiencing crises.
Investment in emergency staff
With short staffing a problem throughout the health and care system, NHS England has announced it will make it easier for staff to work in the NHS 111 call service, which offers clinical advice and support for non-emergency cases.
A recruitment and retention plan for paramedics will be agreed with ambulance services.
Similarly, the plan commits to increasing the number of emergency medical technicians available to respond to incidents and support paramedics.
If the plan is successful, more clinicians will become “advanced practitioners” in emergency care, allowing them to take on expanded roles in multi-disciplinary teams.
In addition, a volunteer responder programme will enable volunteers to support social care. An already-overstretched area, shortages of staff in social care make it harder for hospitals to discharge patients.
Read More: How Will The U.K. Government Fix England’s Emergency Care Crisis?