A £500mn fund to bolster social care in England, and changes to pension tax rules to stem the exodus of senior doctors from the NHS, were at the centre of a “plan for patients” unveiled by the UK government on Thursday.
Speaking against the backdrop of a beleaguered health service, with a record 7mn patients waiting for non-urgent care, health secretary Thérèse Coffey said she expected backlogs “to rise before they fall as more patients come forward for diagnosis and treatment after the pandemic”.
A new adult social care fund “will help speed up the safe discharge of patients from hospital this winter to free up beds as well as helping to retain and recruit more care workers”, said Coffey.
With 13,000 patients in hospital who should be receiving care in the community, “this will improve the flow in emergency departments and help reduce ambulance delays”, she added. The measure builds on a similar scheme that proved successful during the Covid-19 emergency.
Coffey also pledged the equivalent of 7,000 extra beds across England, including 2,500 “virtual beds” with patients monitored remotely by clinicians, to reduce pressure on hospitals and speed up ambulance handovers.
However, Labour hit out at the government’s failure to ease the NHS workforce crisis. Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, accused Coffey of lacking a plan to fill the more than 130,000 vacancies, while observers suggested her blueprint amounted to “little more than tinkering around the edges”.
Sally Warren, director of policy at the King’s Fund think-tank, said that while the new discharge fund would ease some pressure on hospitals, “a short-term, short-notice pot of cash is not going to help social care services to address unmet need, improve quality of care, or recruit and retain more staff”.
Miriam Deakin, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital, mental health, community and ambulance services, said trust leaders would be seeking “categorical reassurances that this funding will not be taken from NHS budgets, which are already severely stretched”.
Jeremy Hunt, a former health secretary, urged Coffey to rethink a commitment that patients seeking a GP appointment be offered one within two weeks. “It’s not more targets the NHS needs, it’s more doctors,” he said.
Coffey took aim at inconsistent performance across the country, warning there was “too much variation in the access and care people receive”.
But in a surprise announcement, she ruled out cancelling the target that people should wait no more than four hours in A&E, a move backed by NHS England. “I believe it matters,” she told MPs.
Meanwhile, dentists will have to state publicly whether they are taking new NHS patients, and GP practices will have to show the time between booking and appointment in an effort to give patients more control over their care.
Prime minister Liz Truss, who has described “delivering on” the NHS as one of her top priorities, said the measures were “the first part of that plan and will help the country through the winter and beyond”.
Amid concerns over a pension regime that is leading many senior doctors to reduce their hours or retire early, Coffey announced changes aimed at reducing the risk of staff breaching their annual savings allowance, and facing tax charges, because of high inflation.
Under another key measure, all NHS employers will from next year be required to offer staff the option of taking their employer pension contribution in cash. This move is aimed at preventing doctors from retiring early because they were losing their employer contribution when they opted out of the scheme.
Dr Vishal Sharma, pensions committee chair at the British Medical Association, said the announcement showed “the government has finally woken up to the immediate risk of doctors retiring in record numbers”. But he added that its proposals “only offer sticking plasters and not the long-term fix that the NHS desperately needs to retain doctors”.
Separately, the government published a bill to reverse the health and social care levy, introduced in April this year, which had been expected to raise about £13bn a year. National insurance rates will be reduced from November. The levy will not then come into force as a separate tax from April 2023 as previously planned.
The bill confirmed, however, that funding for health and social care services “will be maintained at the same level as if the levy was in place”.