Responding to NHS England’s planning guidance, which outlines how the NHS will operate in 2021/22, including tackling the backlog, Dr Rob Harwood, BMA consultants committee chair, said:
“It’s promising to see the Government taking the NHS backlog seriously and recognising the immense amount of elective work yet to come for our health service.
“While the latest funding promises will allay some initial anxieties among healthcare workers, it’s important that the Government is realistic about how far this funding will stretch and, in turn, how much progress the NHS can really make. Last year, the Chancellor said that whatever resources the NHS needs to cope with Covid-19, it will get, and the same must apply here. We know the backlog will likely cost more than the Government currently funded for, so if we need more, we need more; without sufficient resources the backlog may last for the foreseeable future.
“We’re pleased that our concerns1 about staff welfare and the need for colleagues to recuperate while tackling the backlog have been listened to, but promises of taking action on recruitment and retention or letting staff have the period of rest they deserve, for example, must be fulfilled if we’re to see a difference on the frontline – and there’s a lot of work to be done here.
“Only at the end of December 2020, the total estimated number of full-time equivalent vacancies in the NHS stood at 88,801 vacant posts, meaning 7% of all posts were unfilled - that’s 1,379 more vacancies than there were last quarter. And when we look at staff absence, just a few weeks ago on 3 March 75,413 members of hospital staff were absent from work due to sickness or self-isolation in England – adding yet more pressure for staff as they turn their attention to the backlog.
“With this in mind, the Government must be careful about offering financial rewards to units that overachieve during the backlog, potentially incentivising management to push more work on staff and undoing any respite and personal recovery they’ve had.
“We went into this pandemic underfunded and under-resourced, and the NHS has only just managed to keep its head above water this past year. Doctors want the best for their patients and will face the backlog head-on, but they must be properly supported and feel safe in the knowledge that the Government really will make good on its promises.
“The Government must be honest with the public about the extent of the backlog and the time it will take to clear it, but has the opportunity to support the NHS to get back on track and allow its staff to rest, recover and restore. Without further financial support and investment in increasing staffing numbers, patients will be waiting even longer for care, and there is a risk that patient care becomes unsafe the more exhausted staff become. The future of our NHS, already walking wounded, must not be put in jeopardy.”
Notes to editors
The BMA is a professional association and trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.