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NHS being held together by superhuman staff – Robert Francis

Health service only functions because of ‘superhuman’ efforts of staff, says Mid Staffs inquiry chair.

The health service is only holding together because of ‘superhuman efforts’ of staff, according to the barrister who chaired the inquiry into Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.


NHS staff’s efforts cannot carry on indefinitely, says Robert Frances QC  Photo: Tim George

Sir Robert Francis QC, whose 2013 report revealed the extent of care failures at Stafford Hospital, said the current pressures facing the NHS were ‘pretty bad’.

He was commenting after a week of media scrutiny of the NHS, with performance figures showing missed targets and record waiting times, leading health secretary Jeremy Hunt to say conditions were completely unacceptable.

Familiar problems

Sir Robert told the BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: ‘We’ve got a virtual storm of financial pressures: increased demand, difficulties finding staffing, and pressure on the service to continue delivering. And some of that sounds quite familiar, as those were the conditions pertaining at the time of Mid Staffordshire.

‘Things have changed since then, so the very fact that we’re talking about this today the way we are, the very fact that the secretary of state says things are unacceptable, shows there’s a greater level of transparency.

‘So people are talking about the problems in a way that they weren’t before. But the system is running extremely hot at the moment and it’s only working at all because of the almost superhuman efforts of the staff of the NHS. It can’t carry on like that indefinitely without something going badly, or risking going badly wrong.’

Better safeguards

He said there were now better safeguards in place and problems should be spotted before they reach the scale of the Mid Staffs scandal of 2005-09, during which as many as 1,200 patients may have died after being routinely neglected.

Sir Robert, a non-executive director at the Care Quality Commission, said a funding increase would be a ‘sticking plaster’ and there needed to be a change in the way health care is delivered. He said the adult social care crisis needed to be addressed.

Figures emerged last week showing that numbers of people seen in the emergency department within the four-hour target fell to a record low of 86% in December, while those waiting longer than 12 hours to be admitted to a hospital bed doubled to more than 2,500 people in 2016. The number of people waiting more than two months to begin cancer treatment after an urgent referral was at a record high of 25,157.

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