Rishi Sunak is in emergency talks with the NHS and care leaders as he tries to tackle England’s winter healthcare crisis.
The NHS Recovery Forum at No. 10 on Saturday will focus on four key issues: social care and delayed discharge, urgent and urgent care, planned care and primary care.
A Downing Street spokesperson said the aim was to “help share knowledge and practical solutions so we can tackle critical challenges such as delayed discharge and emergency care.”
But Sunak has been warned that a rare weekend meeting is unlikely to turn the tide of the NHS. Labor said patients deserved more than a “talking shop” and the Liberal Democrats said it was “too little, too late”.
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.
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.
The meeting is also being held in conjunction with the ongoing strikes by nurses and ambulance workers over pay and conditions.
Unions have been invited to meet with Health Secretary Steve Barclay on Monday to discuss 2023-24 pay from April, but unions say this will not prevent further strikes planned for January.
The general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen, urged the prime minister to “grab the nettle and negotiate with nurses” on the current settlement to prevent planned strikes.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Of course we will go to a 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.”
The forum is expected to last for much of the day, with attendees including Barclay, Treasury Secretary John Glen, Cabinet Secretary Oliver Dowden and NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said there was “no silver bullet” to address the crisis in hospitals and other care facilities.
“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 decades of underinvestment in staff, capital and no long-term solution to the capacity crisis facing social services are to blame.”
In addition to ministers, attendees were expected to include chief executives and clinical leaders from NHS organisations, local areas and councils across the country.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “As the Prime Minister made clear this week, easing immediate pressures while focusing on long-term improvement of the NHS is one of his key promises.
“That’s why we bring 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 discharges and emergency care.
“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.”
The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, described the meeting as a “talking shop”. He said: “After 13 years of mismanagement of the NHS, this is the equivalent of arsonists calling a forum with the fire service to put out the hell they started. 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?”
Streeting said the government’s pledged £500m for delayed discharges “has yet to reach the front lines and it’s too late to make a difference this winter”.
Liberal Democrat vice-president Daisy Cooper said the meeting was “too little, too late”.
“Hundreds of people are dying needlessly every week in the worst NHS crisis this country has ever experienced while the Prime Minister sat back,” she said.