RCN urges better preparations as ‘worst winter’ nears

The RCN is calling for a long-term plan to address the strain on health services in what is expected to be one of the worst winters for years

The RCN is calling for a long-term plan to address the strain on health services this winter amid warnings about the capacity of the NHS to cope in what is expected to be one of the worst winters for years.

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Health experts warn that the NHS is under severe pressure in the face of what could be the worst flu season for two decades.

A new briefing paper from NHS Providers, which represents acute, ambulance, community and mental health trusts, says the NHS is short of 1,400 beds this winter, with 1% fewer nurses than last year.

List of risks

It points to a number of risks in the system as organisations prepare for winter, including:

  • A more virulent flu strain.
  • Problems with capacity.
  • Workforce shortages.
  • Pressurised finances.

RCN professional lead for acute, emergency and critical care Suman Shrestha said despite a brief mention of nurse staffing in the briefing, workforce pressures were underplayed.

Staffing linked to outcomes

He said: ‘We have a real workforce issue – we have 40,000 vacant nursing posts in England and we have significant problems in the community as well. Nurse staffing is directly linked to patient outcomes.’

Mr Shrestha said data showed the term ‘winter pressures’ was a misnomer as even in summer the number of patients presenting to emergency departments was indicative of year-round issues.

‘That tells us the pressure is constant, rather than just in the winter – we need a long-term plan on this.

‘The problems of pressure in A and E are growing and we need long-term solutions in terms of funding and workforce.’

Services sorely tested

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said despite thorough preparations for winter, services were likely to be sorely tested.

Mr Hopson said: 'The NHS is already under severe pressure, and while the additional funding in the recent budget is welcome, it has come very late to be used to maximum effect.'

Healthcare bodies are anticipating a flu outbreak similar in virulence to that seen in Australia this year, where hospitals were forced to close their doors to new patients and people faced long waiting times.

Facing infection crisis

Society for Acute Medicine president Nick Scriven said: ‘The fear is that we have not faced an infection crisis over winter for several years, and if the Australasian experience is repeated here the system will be swamped as never before.

‘There is a real sense of foreboding that this may be the winter that finally breaks the backbone of the service.’

Meanwhile the most up-to-date winter monitoring figures show nearly 95% of hospital beds in England are full.

RCN general secretary Janet Davies said: 'These first figures of winter make depressing reading for both patients and staff. Having so few free beds also means it’s far more difficult to admit patients to the right ward for their condition.'

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