Rishi Sunak is in emergency talks with health leaders as he tries to ease the NHS winter crisis.
The prime minister hosts experts at Downing Street, including England’s chief medical officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, and NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard.
Labor said the talks joined by Health Secretary Steve Barclay and Treasury Secretary John Glen were “talking” and patients “deserve better”.
Mr Sunak has been warned that the rare weekend meeting is unlikely to relieve pressure on frontline services blamed on “years of inactivity”.
Senior doctors say the NHS is on the knife’s edge with many A&E units scrambling to keep up with demand, with trusts and the ambulance service reporting critical incidents.
The wave of strikes and the high level of flu and coronavirus cases are putting a huge strain on the health service.
Discharge rates in England fell to a new low last week, with only a third of patients ready to be released from hospital actually leaving hospital.
Leaving the “NHS Recovery Forum”, consultant doctor James Dunbar told reporters he was “confident action will be taken” but was not optimistic the crisis would be resolved before spring.
“But these are hard problems to fix, so I think it’s unlikely we’ll be able to solve them by the end of this winter,” he said.
Dr Dunbar said “many” of the senior clinical leaders involved in the study “were saying the same thing”, adding: “The Prime Minister seemed to understand that.”
The president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Adrian Boyle, said the crisis could be “fixed” as he welcomed “emergency care being made a priority”.
The theme of the day was four key issues: Social Care and Delayed Discharge, Urgent and Emergency Care, Scheduled Care and Primary Care.
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said there was “no silver bullet” to solve the crisis after “decades of underinvestment”.
“This crisis lasted a decade or more and we are now paying a heavy price for years of inaction and controlled collapse,” he said.
“Patients are experiencing delays we haven’t seen in years.
“High levels of influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and rising levels of Covid are exacerbating the problem, but the cause is decades of underinvestment in staff, capital and the lack of a long-term solution to the capacity crisis facing social services.
“None of these problems can be solved tomorrow.”
The Prime Minister this week made reducing NHS waiting lists one of his key pledges for the next two years.
The meeting was expected to be attended by CEOs and clinical leaders from NHS organizations and councils across the country, as well as experts from Royal Medical Colleges and independent sectoral organizations working in health and social care.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said “relieving immediate pressure while focusing on long-term improvement of the NHS” were among Sunak’s key commitments.
“That’s why we’re bringing together the best minds from the health and care sector to help share knowledge and practical solutions so we can tackle critical challenges such as delayed discharge and emergency care,” she said.
“We want to correct unjustified differences in NHS performance between local areas because no matter where you live you should have access to quality healthcare.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “After 13 years of mismanagement of the NHS, this is the equivalent of arsonists holding a forum with the fire service to put out the hell they have unleashed.
“Patients deserve more than a talking shop.
“Clinical leaders and health experts have been sounding the alarm for months about the crisis facing the NHS, so why have Rishi Sunak and Steve Barclay taken so long to listen to them?”
Mr Streeting said the government’s pledged £500m for delayed airdrops “has yet to reach the front lines and it’s too late to make a difference this winter”.
NHS Confederation chief Taylor said the investment came “too late to have maximum impact this winter”.
On Monday, Mr Barclay will meet union leaders to discuss NHS pay for the next financial year in talks that are unlikely to prevent planned strikes.
Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen told the prime minister to “grab the nettle and negotiate with nurses” to prevent industrial action.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Of course we will go to the meeting and make the case for nursing in all forums but unfortunately that is not what will prevent the strike action planned for 10 days.
“I have stretched out an olive branch to lead us to the table, now I am asking the Prime Minister to meet the RCN halfway. The ball is hard on the Prime Minister’s side.”
A Department of Health and Social Care source said the health secretary planned to hold an “honest and constructive conversation about what is available to the NHS over the coming year”.