Urgent action is needed this winter to stop the NHS derailing entirely, says BMA

by BMA media team

Press release from the BMA.

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 26 November 2021

In a report1 out today, the BMA forecasts this winter to be the worst on record for UK health services.

The Association believes that the strain on an already exhausted workforce has the potential to derail the long-term recovery of UK health, care and public health services if urgent action isn’t taken now to minimise pressures.

The report, Weathering the Storm1, outlines practical recommendations that could make a big impact on stemming the winter crisis that health services across the UK are facing. These include calling on political leaders to have honest conversations with the public about the immediate challenges facing health services so that patients and the public alike have the best information possible about how to access safe and appropriate care. Steps must also be taken to reduce the number of staff leaving healthcare services including fixing punitive pensions’ taxation rules to ensure no doctor is penalised for working extra hours, and reducing bureaucracy and unnecessary workload to free up valuable clinical time. Protecting and retaining the workforce must be a top priority and any available resources must be directed to the frontline.

The report calls for urgent and immediate action by government and health service leaders and asks them to do more to:

1. Communicate honestly with patients and the public about health service pressures

2. Retain existing staff and maximise workforce capacity, including by:
i. Protecting the health, safety, and wellbeing of staff
ii. Cutting red tape, removing unhelpful targets and barriers, and reducing unnecessary bureaucratic workload
iii. Ending punitive pensions’ taxation rules and taking additional measures to maximise workforce capacity

3. Promote responsible public health policies to keep people safe and healthy and help manage demand on services

4. Direct resources to where they are needed most to manage health service demand

With nearly 100,000 vacancies2 across hospital trusts in England alone and ever dwindling GP (General Practitioner) numbers, coupled with rising numbers of patients per GP and those patients on waiting lists for hospital care, these recommendations could help retain staff and help ensure patients get the care they need this winter.

Dr Trevor Pickersgill, BMA Chief Officer, said:

“We are braced for what will likely be the worst winter in the history of the NHS and we need government and health service leaders to take decisive steps now and to be honest with the public about the pressure health services are under. We are the voice of doctors, experts in healthcare delivery, and we hear from our members daily about the challenges they are facing on their wards, in their clinics and in their surgeries.

“To stop services and the already fragile recovery from completely derailing, urgent action must be taken. This report lays out detailed recommendations that should be put into practice, offering health leaders some tangible solutions to address the current crisis before the annual tough winter period starts. Many of these are quick to implement such as reducing the amount of paperwork and admin many doctors spend hours on, to ensure that valuable clinical time is spent on as much direct patient care as possible.

“Doctors are leaving, cutting their hours or making plans to leave the health service altogether due to workload, abuse, stress and exhaustion. Simply - we must stop this happening. The health service is nothing without its staff. Staff are already suffering from burnout and exhaustion.

“To get through this winter their wellbeing must be prioritised including access to wellbeing and occupational health services, sufficient rest breaks, hot food, leave and time off between shifts. Growing numbers of health and care staff are also being subjected to violent verbal - and even physical - attacks in their workplaces and we know, through our own surveys, that this threatening behaviour towards doctors is escalating. Staff must be protected from this, but Governments also need to be honest with the public about the scale of the challenges facing our health services, which includes dealing with enormous waiting lists, staff and resource shortages. Wide-reaching and large-scale patient information programmes can help to reduce this tension and help ensure patient safety.

“Punitive pensions’ taxation rules that penalise doctors for working extra hours that are desperately needed - this must also change.

“Finally – one of the biggest impacts on the health service remains Covid. If all Governments across the UK strengthened infection prevention and control in public settings, such as making mask-wearing mandatory in indoor public spaces, improving ventilation, and providing better public messaging around the continued risk of Covid, plus the importance of taking up the vaccine and booster jabs, we could cut infection rates and relieve some of the pressure on staff and hospital beds. Equally, better protection for staff in workplaces, such as greater use of respiratory protective equipment, will also ensure staff time away from work is reduced.”


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.

1. Weathering the storm: vital actions to minimise pressure on UK health services this winter
2. NHS Vacancy Statistics