The new health secretary’s plan to put NHS and social care on a “resilient footing” and improve patient care this winter has been criticised for failing to address the nursing workforce crisis.
In her first speech to parliament as health and social care secretary and deputy prime minister, Thérèse Coffey today announced details of ‘Our Plan for Patients’.
“Patients and those who draw on care and support are my top priority”
The government’s new plan includes £500m of additional funding for adult social care to bolster the social care workforce and to free up NHS beds by enabling discharge from hospital into the community.
In addition, the plan also includes £15m to be spent this year on international recruitment of care workers.
A priority of the plan is around improving patient access to primary care, with the expectation that all patients who need a GP appointment will be able to get one within two weeks, and that those with urgent needs should be seen the same day.
To speed up primary care access, several measures are being introduced, including cloud-based telephone systems to make it easier for patients to get through to their general practice, and an increased role for pharmacists who will be expected to take on more prescribing.
To alleviate general practice workforce pressures Ms Coffey announced funding rules would be changed so that GPs can employ more advanced nurse practitioners and GP assistants.
In addition, NHS pension rules would be changed to boost staff retention and to encourage recently retired staff to return to work.
Other actions in the plan include measures to reduce long ambulance handover delays and an increase in the number of emergency call handlers for NHS 111 and 999.
To reduce care backlogs, up to 160 new community diagnostic centres are to be in place by March 2025, according to the plan.
The plan also highlighted the government’s ongoing attempt to recruit 50,000 more nurses by 2024.
In her speech, the new health secretary also called on the public to take part in a “national endeavour” to support the health and social care system by volunteering across the NHS and social care.
Earlier this month, Ms Coffey was criticised for failing to prioritise nursing and the workforce crisis when she posted on Twitter that her key priorities were “ABCD – ambulances, backlogs, care, doctors and dentists”.
Ms Coffey said that the new plan would ensure “smoother pathways” for patients in all parts of health and care.
“Patients and those who draw on care and support are my top priority, and we will help them receive care as quickly and conveniently as possible,” she said.
“That is why we are publishing Our Plan for Patients, which will help empower and inform people to live healthier lives, while boosting the NHS’ performance and productivity.”
RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen said that the plan did not address the basic issue around the lack of nursing staff.
“Many years of underfunding have brought nursing to crisis point, with record numbers of unfilled nurse posts and 25,000 leaving the profession in the last year alone,” she said.
“Urgent investment is needed, including fair pay and measures to boost the domestic workforce, such as funding tuition fees. Paying nurses fairly is a simple way to recruit and retain more of them.”
“Urgent investment is needed, including fair pay and measures to boost the domestic workforce”
Ruth Rankine, director of primary care at the NHS Confederation, said that any support to address GP workload and ease the workforce crisis was welcome, but she agreed that the measures set out in the plan were insufficient.
She said: “These measures will not come close to ensuring patients who need to be seen can be within the timescales set out.
“Also, they will have minimal impact on fixing the current problems that general practice is facing over the winter and could compromise continuity of care.”
Interim deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Miriam Deakin, welcomed the £500 million adult care social care fund to help tackle delayed discharges, but she added that what was needed was “tangible progress” to tackle the significant workforce gaps across health and care, with over 130,000 vacancies across trusts in England alone.
“The next few months are going to be very tough across all health and care services,” she said, citing rising operational demands, a possible ‘twindemic’ of Covid-19 and an early flu season, and staff and patients struggling with the cost of living crisis.
She added: “We need a substantial boost across all parts of the workforce if we are going to tackle the elective waiting list which now stands at 6.8 million, alongside substantial care backlogs across mental health, primary care and community services.
“We need to see a fully funded workforce plan – and fast.”