Winter planning in national crisis
Hospital bosses across England have warned that a lack of funds is leading to scaled-back plans to open extra beds, crucial for coping with the seasonal surge in patient numbers.
The combination of more strikes, staff burnout, and a relentless rise in demand for care amid severe funding constraints is expected to hinder progress in reducing patient waiting lists and delays in planned and emergency care.
A survey revealed that 80% of leaders believe this winter will be tougher than the last. Concerns about winter pressures are high, with 95% of respondents worried about the impact.
In Lincolnshire, United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust (ULHT) is taking proactive steps to mitigate these challenges.
A spokesperson explained: “At ULHT, this includes a programme to change the internal configuration of hospital beds, aiming to manage patient flow more effectively and reduce long waits in our emergency departments.”
Despite the national funding squeeze, ULHT is identifying potential short-term escalation areas to increase bed capacity if needed.
This plan, however, hinges on the ability to source additional staffing to support a higher number of patients.
“Like many acute trusts, as part of our winter planning, we have identified potential areas to expand our bed capacity,” the spokesperson added.
The Trust is also focusing on community-based solutions. “For many people, the best bed is in their own home,” the spokesperson noted.
ULHT is working closely with system partners to find alternatives to hospital admissions where possible and to support safe and timely discharges.
This approach is not only patient-centric but also aims to ensure that hospital beds are available for those who need them most.
According to NHS Providers, which represents trust managers, there are significant challenges faced by NHS trusts as they prepare for a difficult winter amidst financial constraints.
More than three-quarters of NHS trust leaders (76%) expect to be in a worse financial position than last year.
Funding pressures are raising concerns about patient safety and quality of care, and are affecting trusts’ ability to ramp up services for winter.
Some trusts have had to shelve plans for more beds, put recruitment efforts on hold, and reduce investment in community and mental health facilities due to financial constraints.
However, the government told the BBC that winter planning was on track, with 10,000 “virtual” hospital beds being opened and more than 5,000 new permanent hospital beds – a 5% increase.
“We recognise the challenges the NHS faces over the coming months, which is why we started preparing for winter earlier than ever,” a Department of Health and Social Care spokesman added.
Industrial action is estimated to have cost the health service £1bn this year.
But last week, it was confirmed the Treasury would be giving the NHS only an extra £100m to cover the cost of strikes.
The NHS has been told to find the remaining £900m through savings in other areas such as information technology (IT) and maintenance, as well as using £200m of winter money.