LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will meet leaders of England’s health service on Saturday as it faces one of its harshest winters on record as flu and COVID-19 spread amid strikes by frontline workers who say high inflation has lowered their salaries.
Ambulances are lining up outside hospitals, waiting long to transfer patients to emergency departments as doctors and nurses, hampered by staff shortages, struggle to discharge patients from staff shortages.
Sunak’s Downing Street office said Saturday’s NHS (National Health Service) recovery forum will focus on four issues, including emergency care and delayed discharges from hospitals to social care.
A spokesman said a key objective was to ease the immediate pressure on hospitals while focusing on long-term improvement of the NHS.
“That’s why we bring together the best minds from the health and care sector to help share knowledge and practical solutions so that we can tackle the most important challenges,” the spokesperson said.
Downing Street made no mention of the issue of wage rewards.
Over the past few months, the UK has faced a wave of industrial action, with strikes paralyzing sectors including healthcare.
Sunak, who is under increasing pressure, including from a member of his Conservative Party, to improve pay offers for medical staff, this week said shortening hospital waiting lists was one of his top five priorities in the UK this year. He said it may take longer to reach this goal than others.
The government has announced additional funding for the NHS and social care, including £500m ($600m) for delayed discharges, although opposition Labor said the money “hasn’t reached the frontlines yet and it’s too late to change something this winter.”
NHS leaders are warning of unprecedented pressure from record demand for services, with statistics from last week showing that the number of flu cases has almost halved.
Healthcare statistics showed that more than 9 out of 10 hospital beds were occupied in the week leading up to New Year’s Day, with 13,000 beds per day occupied by patients who were medically fit to be discharged.
“We knew this winter was going to be one of the most difficult in the history of the NHS,” said NHS National Medical Director Stephen Powis, adding that the NHS was making “big progress to put in the equivalent of 7,000 extra beds by March”.
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(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by John Stonestreet)