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Fewer staff in NHS needed to get finances balanced

Think tank warns cuts will mean drop in quality and staff morale

Adrian O'Dowd

Monday, 11 July 2016

The NHS is likely to have to cut staffing levels back to be able to reduce its growing deficit, according to a health think tank.

The King’s Fund today published a new briefing report in which it makes blunt warnings about staffing levels falling, the need for a rethink on waiting time targets and a possible fall in the quality of care being provided to patients.

The report Deficits in the NHS 2016 says the government has to review its priorities for the NHS and be honest with the public about what the health service can deliver with its budget.

Analysis carried out for the briefing shows that NHS providers and commissioners recorded a collective deficit of £1.85 billion in 2015-16 – a threefold increase on the previous year and the biggest deficit in NHS history – despite stringent financial controls and short-term measures implemented by the government and NHS bodies to reduce costs.

The report’s authors argued that the scale of overspending meant the deficit was not due to mismanagement in individual organisations but was a systemic problem, with the NHS no longer able to meet rising demand for services and maintain standards of care with the budget it had been allocated.

They said in the report: “If restoring financial balance is the government’s highest priority, it is inevitable that staffing levels will need to be reduced. This presents a clear and present danger that patient safety and quality of care will be compromised and staff morale damaged further.

“It would also contrast starkly with the period leading up to the 2015 general election, when the priority was to ensure safe staffing and the government in effect turned a blind eye to overspending.”

The report says that programmes to implement new models of care in the NHS could improve services for patients but would not deliver major savings in the short term.

It suggests that key waiting time targets may need to be reviewed and the commitment to deliver seven-day services revisited if the government is determined to restore financial balance in the NHS.

It also mentions the risks to the NHS following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union (EU), saying political and economic instability following the Brexit vote are likely to add to the financial pressures faced by the NHS.

The report comes ahead of the publication this week of the Department of Health’s annual accounts and a new drive from national bodies to reduce deficits across the NHS.

Helen McKenna, senior policy adviser at The King’s Fund and one of the report’s authors, said: “Politicians need to be honest with the public about what the NHS can offer with the funding allocated to it.

“It is no longer credible to argue that the NHS can continue to meet increasing demand for services, deliver current standards of care and stay within its budget. There are no easy choices, but it would be disastrous to adopt a mindset that fails to acknowledge the serious state of the NHS in England today.”

A Department of Health spokesman said the NHS was performing well, adding: “We know some providers are under financial pressure caused by big rises in demand and our ageing population, but are investing an extra £10bn a year by 2020 to deliver the NHS's own plan for the future.

“High quality care and good financial management go hand in hand and we are determined to make the NHS the safest healthcare system in the world, delivering a seven-day NHS.”

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