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Winter 2017-18 was ‘watershed moment’ for overwhelmed NHS

Last winter brought into sharp focus that the NHS is unable to deliver the expected level of care

Louise Prime

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The winter of 2017/18 was a watershed moment for the NHS with most parts of the health service under intense and sustained pressure, staff unable to deliver the standard of care they would like to, and patient care compromised in too many instances, NHS Providers reported this morning. It warned that last winter “brought into sharp focus that the NHS is currently unable to deliver the level of care, as laid out in the NHS constitution”.

NHS Providers insisted that urgent action must be taken to escape the ‘perpetual winter crisis’ that the NHS faces each year, and to better support trusts and staff on the frontline. It called for a meaningful national review of winter 2017/18, a new national planning framework that is realistic about demand projections and a full review of capacity across the health and care system.

The organisation reported in Mapping the NHS winter that it had found an overwhelming lack of capacity across the country; demand for services that substantially exceeded the previous winter; and a fundamental mismatch between demand and capacity across all parts of the NHS. But it added that despite seeing more patients the NHS still managed to treat, admit or discharge more patients than ever before within four hours.

NHS Providers’ investigation revealed that: 

  • A&E attendances over the year rose to nearly 24 million – equivalent to almost half the population of England.
  • There was a 261,000 increase in attendances during winter – broadly the same as the population of Plymouth.
  • There were 1.52 million emergency admissions over the winter, 85,000 more than the previous year – roughly equal to the number of people who live in Halifax.
  • Over winter there were 1.3 million arrivals by ambulance, a similar figure to the number of people who live in Birmingham.
  • The number delayed by more than 15 minutes (the official limit) in handing patients over to hospital was 600,000 – the same as the population of Bristol.

Report author Claire Helm, NHS Providers’ analysis manager, said: “The unprecedented demand for care last winter exposed the vulnerability of health and care services which – despite heroic efforts – lacked the resources to ensure the standards of care that patients have a right to expect, and that trusts and their staff want to provide.

“Setting out the challenges by comparison to populations of some of our towns and cities provides a compelling perspective of the difficulties they faced.”

She warned: “This was a watershed moment for the NHS as performance targets established to ensure safe, good quality care moved beyond reach.

“We must learn from last winter’s experiences to ensure services are safe and resilient next time.”

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