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Local Leaders Doubt £200m For Temporary Social Care Beds Will Fix NHS Crisis

Ambulances outside a hospital in Glasgow, January 2023 (Alamy)

5 min read

The health secretary's plans to buy thousands of social care beds in an attempt to ease pressure on the NHS has been described as “piecemeal” by local government figures as a crisis continues to grip emergency care across the country

Steve Barclay announced up to £200m of support for the NHS and local authorities, which will be used to buy short-term care placements to help patients who are medically fit out of hospitals and into community settings in order to free up hospital beds. 

Officials have said that the cash will mean 2,500 beds will be made available in the first instance, with more to come in the future, but local government officials have called for a longer term approach. 

The funding is in response to the winter crisis in the NHS, with reports of patients waiting for hours in A&E or in the back of ambulances, and hospital trusts across the country declaring critical incidents. 

In addition to £50m to help increase emergency department capacity, Barclay told MPs this afternoon that the £200m will be used to “block book beds in residential homes to enable around 2,500 people to be released from hospitals when they are medically fit to be discharged”.

NHS England, he said, has been asked to “particularly focus” on wraparound care, following the “deployment of a similar approach during the pandemic”. 

The health secretary also acknowledged the pressures on the health service, telling the Commons that he and the government “regret that the experience for some patients and staff in emergency care has not been acceptable in recent weeks”.

In addition, Barclay said that front line staff would be freed up from “being diverted by CQC [Care Quality Commission] inspections over the coming weeks”, as he announced the body had agreed to reduce their visits. 

However, local government figures have suggested that issues in the health and care services will “not be fixed through tacked on funding that fails to address any of the root causes of this situation”. 

David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, speaking ahead of Barclay’s statement described the “piecemeal allocation of funding” as “no substitute for a strategic approach to the pressure on hospital beds”. 

He added: “A decade of consistent underfunding of social care and underinvestment in community health services has led us into this crisis and it will not be fixed through tacked-on funding that fails to address any of the root causes of this situation.

“Councils recognise the immediate issue of pressures on hospitals and the desire to expand capacity through use of care home beds. 

“It is important that any beds purchased by the NHS must be clearly earmarked as short-term recovery beds and have full wrap around support to support people to get home as quickly as possible.”

There was a similar response from shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, who accused Barclay and the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of refusing to admit that the NHS is in crisis. 

“It is clear to the staff who have been slogging their guts out over Christmas, it is clear to everyone who uses the NHS as a patient,” he told the Commons.  

“The only people who can't see it are the government.

“What has been announced today is yet another sticking plaster when the NHS needs fundamental reform. The front door to the NHS is blocked, the exit door is blocked and there simply aren't enough staff.”

Barclay’s announcement comes as ministers and officials have been locked in talks with industry bosses in an attempt to bring an end to the winter’s strike action. 

Union leaders emerged from discussions with Barclay earlier today, and made clear that walkouts would continue to go ahead with “no resolution to our dispute yet in sight”. 

The Royal College of Nursing’s Joanne Galbraith-Marten called the meeting “bitterly disappointing”, claiming nothing was offered for the current year and “the budget is already set for next year”. 

“This intransigence is letting patients down,” she added. 

“Ministers have a distance to travel to avert next week’s nurse strike”. 

While Unite's Onay Kasab told reporters in Westminster that the "government have missed yet another opportunity to put this right. We came here in good faith. What they want to talk about is productivity." 

However, there were more optimistic noises from Unison, who said that strikes among ambulance staff would still be going ahead, but pay had been mentioned this time around. 

The union’s head of health Sara Gorton said they did not get the “tangible concessions” they were looking for but “it was a very civil meeting, we did actually manage to talk about pay.” 

She added: “It was definitely a progress, we were in a room with the Secretary of state talking about pay.” 

On a visit to a hospital earlier today, Sunak did not deny that the idea of a one off cost of living payment for nurses could be on the table. 

He told broadcasters while in Leeds: "On pay, we have always said the government is happy to talk about pay demands that are anchored in what is reasonable, responsible and affordable." 

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman had also not dismissed the suggestion that the one-off payment could be offered as part of talks. 

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