The Government is being warned that pressure on the NHS shows little sign of relenting, as ministers come under increasing pressure to respond to the crisis.
Top medics described the current situation as “unbearable” and “intolerable”, as both the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary faced calls to address to growing concerns about the state of emergency care in the NHS.
More than a dozen NHS trusts and ambulance services declared critical incidents over the festive period, with officials citing rising flu cases and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic among the factors hitting the health service.
But amid concern that the pressure is likely to continue, the British Medical Association (BMA) said that the Government’s “political choices” were leading to patients “dying unnecessarily”.
Professor Phil Banfield, chairman of the BMA council, said: “The current situation in the NHS is intolerable and unsustainable, both for our patients and the hard-working staff desperately trying to keep up with incredibly high levels of demand,” he said.
“The BMA has repeatedly invited the Government to sit down and talk about the pressures on our health service, but their silence is deafening.
“It is disingenuous for the Prime Minister to talk about ‘backing the NHS’ in his New Year message, when his own Health Secretary is failing to discuss how this crisis can be fixed.”
He called on the Government to “step up and take immediate action” to solve the crisis.
“The Government should deliver on its obligations to the public. It is just not true that the cost of resolving this mess cannot be afforded by this country.
“This is a political choice and patients are dying unnecessarily because of that choice.”
The airwaves on Monday were full of similarly stark warnings, as the Royal College of Emergency Medicine repeated its claim that somewhere between 300 and 500 people are dying each week as a result of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats criticised the Government for inaction over recent days, with the latter calling for Parliament to be recalled to discuss the situation.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting laid the blame for the crisis at the feet of the Conservatives, who he accused of “mismanagement” of the NHS.
The Labour MP on Monday branded it “inexplicable” that neither Rishi Sunak nor any of his ministers had offered answers to the challenges facing hospitals across the UK.
“Given what we’ve seen throughout Christmas and the new year, not a single government minister, whether it’s the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary, has raised their head or shown their face to say exactly what they are doing to grip this crisis,” he said.
Ian Higginson, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, also told BBC Radio 4: “What we’ve been hearing over the last few days is that the current problems are all due to Covid or they’re all due to flu, or that this is complex, you mustn’t jump to conclusions – all that sort of stuff.
“If you’re at the front line, you know that this is a longstanding problem. This isn’t a short-term thing. The sort of things we’re seeing happen every winter, and it still seems to come as a surprise to the NHS.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “NHS staff do an incredible job and we recognise the pressures the NHS is facing following the impact of the pandemic.
“That’s why we’ve backed the NHS and social care with up to £14.1 billion additional funding over the next two years and this winter we have provided an extra £500 million to speed up hospital discharge and free up beds.
“We also awarded a 9.3% pay rise to the lowest earners in the NHS last year.
“The Health Secretary and ministers have met with unions several times and have been clear their door remains open to further discuss how we can work together to improve the working lives of NHS staff.”