Winter crisis highlights ministers’ failure to take staffing seriously

With cancelled operations and long queues, the simplistic solution would be to open more beds – but there are not enough staff to care for the people in them

Barely a winter passes without the NHS being described as being at breaking point, in crisis, on its knees – select a cliché of your choice. This time around the government has responded by cancelling routine operations in England for a month in a desperate attempt to regain control.

Long queues in emergency departments and bed occupancy rates of above 90% are symptoms of a service that cannot cope, especially when temperatures fall below freezing and there is an outbreak of the norovirus.

Such crises are predictable because the worst of the weather coincides with the time of year when the health service starts running out of money. The annualised approach to budgets, which means finance directors have to hit their targets at the end of March each year, intensifies pressure on a service that is overstretched at the best of times.

Principal challenge

The simplistic solution this winter would be to open more beds, but there are not enough staff to care for the people in them. Andrew Lansley and Jeremy Hunt, the ministers in charge of the NHS in England since 2010, have singularly failed to ensure that there are sufficient, appropriately trained healthcare professionals to meet demand.

Solving this problem will be the principal challenge facing Mr Hunt’s successor. It is unacceptable that this issue should have been unresolved for so long, despite warnings of the implications and compelling evidence of the impact.

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