The cost of living crisis will add further strain to an already imperilled NHS this autumn, experts have warned, amid concerns the healthcare crisis could deepen if urgent action is not taken.
Healthcare professionals say the NHS is at risk of a surge in hospital admissions, operations being cancelled en masse, and increasing difficulties over discharging patients if such pressures, potentially combined with a further wave of Covid and a bad flu season, are not tackled.
The warnings come after the health secretary, Steve Barclay, said on Sunday that there needs to be a “real sprint” within Whitehall to get ready for September, telling the Telegraph hospitals were facing “very serious challenges coming down the track in the autumn”.
Julian Tang, a clinical virologist and honorary associate professor in respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, said the cost of living crisis could impact the NHS if people are unable to heat their homes or have adequate food.
“Unless there is a lot of government financial support, I think this winter will be very difficult for a lot of people,” he said, noting the cold can worsen conditions from heart disease to chronic lung disease and diabetes, while Covid or flu infections can also aggravate such illnesses.
“All of this will culminate in higher admissions to the NHS for the exacerbation of these chronic conditions due to the cold, inability to heat their homes and inability to eat enough – with possible malnutrition, particularly in children, as people have to buy cheaper and less healthy foods due to rising food bills – and the additional burden of returning seasonal respiratory virus infections,” he said.
Tang added it may also become harder to discharge patients, an issue that is already fuelling problems including slow ambulance response times and is driven by a shortage of social care and nurses.
“As I saw during my junior doctor days, in the winter months some patients will not want to go home – to a cold, damp house, alone, with inadequate heating and food – when they can get a warm bed in hospital with three meals a day and helpful, friendly staff and other patients to chat to.”
Tang called for greater funding both for the NHS and financial support for households to tackle such pressures.
However, on Monday No 10 ruled out any further support with the cost of living crisis, saying the matter was for a future prime minister to tackle.
While the interim chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, welcomed Barclay’s emphasis on urgency, she stressed the scale of the problems, calling for a long-term, sustainable workforce plan as soon as possible and long-term investment in and reform of social care.
“It is important that the secretary of state has called it as it is. He is right that we need to act immediately, in particular on social care,” she said. “There is widespread pressure across the NHS, and we know that in urgent and emergency care demand continues to outstrip capacity, jeopardising patient care and safety.”
“There has been no let-up over recent months and NHS trusts are braced for a challenging time ahead, with the potential for further Covid waves and a bad flu season.”
Dr Naru Narayanan, the president of the HCSA, the hospital doctors’ union, agreed.
“We are extremely concerned about the impact of the dual impact of flu and Covid this winter in an NHS which is creaking under the strain of staffing issues,” he said.
“There is a real risk we will see operations cancelled en masse and an even greater crisis if we don’t act pre-emptively.”
Narayanan called for a reintroduction of enhanced cleaning regimes in hospitals, wider use of face masks and a potential expansion of the autumn Covid booster vaccination programme.
At present, everyone over the age of 50 is to be offered another Covid jab this autumn, together with healthcare staff and other specific groups such as care home residents.
While Barclay has revealed plans to hire more staff from overseas to address staffing problems, particularly in social care, experts stressed it is crucial to retain existing healthcare staff – and address concerns over the recent pay offer.
Patricia Marquis, the director for England of the Royal College of Nursing, said:“Mr Barclay is right to say that the social care crisis in England needs fixing. Official figures show there is a huge problem with patients being unable go home from hospital, because the appropriate social care package isn’t in place and the severe shortage of nursing staff.”
She added: “Ministers’ failure to tackle the workforce crisis is putting patients at risk and has left nursing with no choice but to consider industrial strike action. We will be balloting our members soon.”