The Omicron variant and a growing staffing crisis could derail efforts to tackle the Covid backlog if workforce planning does not improve, MPs have warned.
A Health and Social Care Committee report, published today, said better workforce planning is key to tackling the backlog of care caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, on top of a recovery plan across primary care, community care, social care, mental health and emergency care.
Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid vowed that NHS England would set out workforce plans by the end of November 2021 but nothing has been published, the report highlighted. This is despite the latest figures showing there are 93,806 NHS vacancies including 38,952 in nursing.
In addition, the document noted the Government ‘resisted changes’ to the Health and Social Care Bill that would have required publication of an independent assessment of workforce numbers at least once every two years, as called for several healthcare umbrella bodies.
The report went on to warn that the focus on the elective backlog ‘risks deprioritising other equally important areas’ such as primary care, community services and mental health services.
For example, it highlighted a backlog in public health – such as where children have missed out on universal programmes largely delivered by school. This issue was explored by Nursing in Practice in an in-depth look last month at the backlog of care facing practice nurses.
And the committee suggested the social care sector will remain the ‘poor relation’ to the NHS without extra funding. Of the £36bn extra the Government says will be gained over the next three years through the Health and Social Care Levy, just £5.4bn is earmarked for social care in England, it noted.
The report also pinpointed the ‘hidden demand’ of people with mental health issues exacerbated by lockdown and people living with medical conditions who have face interruptions to their usual care.
Jeremy Hunt, health and social care committee chair, said: ‘The Government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis.
‘Far from tackling the backlog, the NHS will be able to deliver little more than day to day firefighting unless the Government wakes up to the scale of the staffing crisis facing the NHS, and urgently develops a long-term plan to fix the issue.’
Pat Cullen, RCN chief executive, said: ‘Tens of thousands of nursing roles were unfilled in the NHS and social care even before the pandemic. To keep today’s nursing staff and inspire a new generation, the government needs to match the rhetoric with solid investment. Ministers must take legal accountability for addressing this situation.’
The warning comes alongside the worse waiting times in emergency departments on record, with one in four patients waiting longer than four hours to be admitted as of October 2021.
There were 5.8 million people waiting for planned care as of September 2021, although health and social care secretary Sajid Javid warned in July 2021 that the true waiting list could be as high as 13 million because of ‘missing’ patients who have not yet come forward for care.
However, the Government has committed £5.4bn to help the NHS tackle Covid-19 including the backlog over six months from September 2021.