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NHS ‘as stretched now as it was in January’, health leaders say

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The NHS is as stretched now as it was at the pandemic’s peak in January and things could get worse, health leaders have said.

NHS providers have warned of “the scale of challenges over the next nine months” in a letter to the prime minister, the chancellor, the health secretary, the chief secretary to the Treasury and the chief executive of NHS England.

“Many trust chief executives are saying that the overall level of pressure they are now experiencing is, although very different in shape, similar to the pressure they saw in January of this year when the NHS was under the greatest pressure in a generation,” the letter said.

A backlog of care across hospital, mental health and community services are among the sources of pressure, along with record levels of demand for urgent and emergency care.

Growing hospital admissions for COVID-19, increased cases of long COVID and of people suffering from poor mental health are adding to the workload.

NHS providers said hospitals face a “significant loss of capacity” due to enhanced infection control measures and staff self-isolating or missing work due to stress and mental health problems.

Front-line workers are also taking holidays that were postponed earlier in the pandemic.

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The letter warned that these pressures are likely to increase due to a “much more complex” second phase vaccination campaign, further waves of coronavirus and “the prospect of one of the worst winters on record”.

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said: “Many NHS chief executives believe the next phase of our fight against COVID-19 is likely to be the hardest yet given the scale and breadth of pressures they face.

“They are clear that, now more than ever, the NHS must get the funding it needs to win that fight.”

He said trust leaders are worried that “the current signals from government” indicate the NHS will not get enough funding to maintain a high quality of patient care.

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NHS leaders are calling for increased funding to free up beds, address the backlog, and expand emergency departments, crisis mental health services and community and ambulance capacity in time for winter.

They said the 3% pay rise for workers must be paid for by the government to ensure trusts “do not have to eat into other budgets”.

More and continued use of the private sector was another recommendation to help clear the backlog.