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NHS England advises trusts to cancel operations this winter as system ‘buckles’

NHS England has told trusts to cancel routine operations and outpatient appointments to take strain off A&E departments this winter, amid warnings the system is already buckling under pressure.

The plans are outlined by NHS England in a submission to the Commons Health Committee’s inquiry in to how the NHS is preparing to cope with the usual increase in admissions expected over the winter months.

But GP leaders warned the NHS is under too much pressure all year round and called for an urgent cash injection to expand capacity across the whole system.

The plans from NHS England, drawn up in conjunction with the Department of Health and NHS Improvement, state that hospital trusts will be expected to have ‘specific plans in place for winter, which will be assured regionally and nationally’.

They will include trusts ‘cancelling some outpatient activity to free senior decision makers to enhance ward presence and accelerate discharge where appropriate’ and ‘reducing admitted elective activity immediately prior to Christmas to create non-elective capacity’. 

It comes after Pulse revealed that NHS St Helens CCG was making plans to ban all non-urgent referrals this winter – which it later backed down on – while NHS Herts Valley CCG told GPs to refer patients to the private sector in a bid to cut local trust’s waiting times.

Dr Richard Vautrey, GPC deputy chair, told Pulse that hospitals often use measures such as cancelling operations during winter peaks in demand, ‘to rightly focus on urgent cases’.

However, Dr Vautrey added that the whole of the NHS is now facing huge pressure all year round.

He said: ‘The financial and workload pressures facing GPs and hospitals are now having an impact throughout the year, not just winter, and the need for significant additional investment to enable all parts of the NHS to have the necessary capacity to deal with increased patient need has never been more urgent.’

In other evidence, the Royal College of Nursing said hospitals were already ‘buckling under the strain of financial pressures and increased demand for services’ and called for a long-term funding plan, including better social care provision in the community ‘so that patients can be assessed and treated appropriately, and so that hospital staff can confidently discharge patients’.

And the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) said the number of acute hospital beds has fallen by 6% over the past five years, yet emergency admissions have risen by 17% over this time.

Dr Cliff Mann, RCEM president, told the Telegraph: ‘What is really worrying is that when you look at last winter, the NHS came under very heavy pressures despite mild weather and little flu. All it would take is a bad flu outbreak this winter and we would be poleaxed.’

An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘The NHS again proved resilient this winter despite further increase in demand, with fewer trusts reporting serious operational issues and a significant reduction in trolley waits.

‘We are already preparing for the upcoming winter with hospitals, GPs, social services and other health professionals coming together to work out the best way of responding in every area of the country.’