Health Secretary Steve Barclay has said delays to ambulance services had created a “material risk” for patients, but did not explicitly acknowledge concerns that long waits were contributing to patient deaths.
Barclay has this morning faced pressure to address urgent concerns by NHS leaders that people have died while waiting for ambulances to arrive.
Deborah Lee, chief executive of Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and Andew Cox, a senior coroner in Cornwall, have both raised the alarm in recent days about the impact of ambulance waits. According to The Sunday Times, Cox has written to Barclay outlining his damning assessment of repeated cases of patients he believes have died as a result of delays, and demanded action.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Barclay said he was “aware” of the concerns and that he was looking at the issue “extremely closely”.
But he repeatedly refused to acknowledge whether record-high waiting times for paramedics could be contributing to deaths.
“If there is a delay in an ambulance getting to someone in terms of unmet need, and obviously, that is a material risk,” Barclay said.
“That is why it is so important that we get the flow in terms of those handover delays. About a fifth of the delay is due to what happens in hospitals itself.
He continued: “The primary cause of the delays, the biggest factor, has been delays in domiciliary care and residential homes.
In October, only 70 per cent of patients were seen within four hours in all A&E departments, the worst performance reported since the target was introduced.
The number of people waiting for non-urgent hospital treatment also hit a record-high in September, with 7.07m on the list.
Barclay told the BBC that many of the delays in the NHS were due to the effects of the pandemic, and a lack of social care places delaying the discharge of people from hospital.
He defended the government’s decision to delay plans to cap lifetime social care costs at £86,000 until 2025, despite the reform originally being intended to come into effect in 2023.
“It’s a very difficult decision to delay those reforms. We remain committed to them,” he said.
“But we recognise it as an immediate issue, particularly in hospitals where we got 30,500 people who are ready to discharge, but we are not able to do so. That is having a knock on effect in areas like ambulances and the flow through hospitals.”
He highlighted that the government had pledged an extra £2.3bn for the next two years for the NHS as part of plans announced in the Autumn Statement this week.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting dismissed Barclay’s claims that the pandemic was a leading cause of the current delays in NHS services, and highlighted the longer-term backlog.
“Steve Barclay back to the discredited Conservative script claiming that Conservative NHS backlogs are Covid backlogs,” Streeting tweeted on Sunday morning.
“But we went INTO the pandemic with NHS waiting lists ALREADY at a RECORD 4.5 MILLION.
“The longer the Conservatives are in power the longer patients will wait.”
Labour has pledged to significantly increase NHS staffing, paid for by abolishing non-dom tax exemption.
Despite an increase in funding announced by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt this week, the NHS is facing unprecedented strikes this winter, with Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members going on strike for the first time.
Barclay said his “door is open” for negotiations with the RCN and other unions, whom he met with earlier this week to discuss their demands, which include better working conditions and a pay rise of 5% above inflation.
But RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen said on Thursday that those meetings had failed to solve the issues relating to the strike and were not meaningful negotiations.
“I must not let my members, nor the public confuse these meetings for serious discussions on the issues of NHS pay and patient safety,” she said in a letter to members.
“There is only value in meeting if you wish to discuss – in formal, detailed negotiations – the issues that have caused our members to vote for strike action.”
Barclay said on Sunday that the government had “respected” the independent pay review body’s recommendations on pay, and highlighted that other areas of the public sector were having pay freezes.
Responding Barclay’s comments, the RCN’s Pat Cullen said the health secretary’s “lack of intention and inability to see the urgency of this situation will trouble every nurse”.
“Just an hour after we again urged him to come to the negotiating table to have detailed, formal discussions on pay and patient safety, he showed no signs of doing so.
“He has finally admitted what we’ve been saying about years of neglect, underinvestment and, as a result, underperformance, but that is not enough.
Cullen added that in this “key week for health and care” the sector needed ministers to “be bold and adopt a radical new position with serious investment in nursing”.
“If governments don’t follow Nicola Sturgeon’s lead in Scotland, we will announce strike dates in December for the rest of the UK,” she added.