Thérèse Coffey's New NHS Plan Promises To "Maximise" Use Of Private Sector
Health Secretary Therese Coffey has set out her "expectation" that patients will be able to see a GP within two weeks (Alamy)
Health Secretary Thérèse Coffey has outlined plans to tackle backlogs in the NHS in her first major statement since joining Liz Truss's government, including maximising the use of the independent sector, ensuring patients can see a GP within two weeks and encouraging clinical staff to return to the health service.
She said that patients are her “top priority” in a "national endeavour" to help tackle issues with ambulances, backlogs, care and doctors and dentists – styled as, "ABCD" – in a new plan to help the NHS through the winter.
However, opposition parties have accused ministers of underfunding the health service and being “out of ideas” and “out of a clue of the scale of the challenge” facing the NHS.
Coffey – who also serves as Deputy Prime Minister – pledged to reduce ambulance waiting and handover times with trusts working to free up beds, and promised that “we will be increasing the number of call handlers for both 999 and 111 calls.”
New diagnostic centres and use of the independent sector will form a key part of bringing down waiting lists in plans set out to the Commons this afternoon.
"This summer we announced that we have virtually eliminated waits of over two years and, we remain on track to reach the next milestones in our plan," Coffey said.
"To boost capacity, we are accelerating our plans to roll out Community Diagnostic Centres as well as new hospitals and we will maximise the use of the independent sector to provide even more treatment for patients."
She also promised “more people on the front line” and to “maximise the use of the independent sector to provide even more treatment for patients,” to help tackle the backlog, and announced a £500 million Adult Social Care Discharge Fund for this winter to help with the movement of patients from hospitals into more appropriate care settings.
She laid out proposals to make it easier for patients to secure GP appointments, including an “expectation” that an appointment would be available within two weeks. While addition GP resources are not expected, the government will change rules to allow pharmacists to prescribe certain medications, freeing up doctors’ time.
"Patients are my top priority and I will be their champion, focusing on the issues that most affect them or their loved ones," she told MPs.
But Coffey also admitted that the health service had a mountain to climb in tackling backlogs that have been significantly exacerbated by the Covid pandemic.
"We expect backlogs to rise before they fall as more patients come forward for diagnosis and treatment after the pandemic and the data shows, sadly, that there is too much variation in the access and care people receive across the country," she said.
"The scale of the challenge necessitates a national endeavour."
Such a "national endeavour" would be supported by encouraging former NHS staff, or those who had volunteered during the pandemic to return to the health service, something the health secretary pledged to make easier.
"That could be by becoming a community first responder or by, for example, strengthening Good Neighbour schemes across the country and we will also be exploring the creation of an ambulance auxiliary service," Coffey continued.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting dismissed the proposals and accused the Government of being “out of ideas”.
“The NHS is facing the worst crisis it has ever seen," he told MPs.
“Patients are waiting longer than ever before in A&E, stroke and heart attack victims waiting an hour for an ambulance, 378,000 patients waiting more than a year for an operation, and that was the summer," he continued.
“We've gone from an NHS that treated patients well, and on time when Labour were in office 12 years ago to an annual winter crisis, and now a year round crisis under the Conservatives.”
Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson Daisy Cooper MP, said: "This isn’t a plan, it's an A, B, C of failure.
Earlier, Coffey previewed her “expectation” that GPs will guarantee appointments within two weeks, as she promised a “laser-like focus” on patients.
However, she would not say that seeing a doctor within two weeks was a guarantee and did not detail what the consequences surgeries would face for not meeting the target.
Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Coffey said that local NHS bodies will work with practices “so that patients rightly are able to get appointments - ideally within a fortnight - but of course for urgent cases on the same day.”
Pushed on whether the two weeks was “a target” or “an ambition”, Coffey added: “ It's clearly an expectation that I'm setting out on behalf of patients.
“Patients are my top priority, and that is clear in this plan.”
Earlier this week, PoliticsHome reported GPs warning that the NHS risked becoming a “sinking ship” if there were not significant changes to primary care and access to it.
In a letter to the new health secretary, a group of GPs, convened by the Doctor’s Association UK, say they are in a “downward spiral” where they can “no longer meet the unrealistic demands of the job,” with medics likely to cut their hours or quit.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe