Pushing doctors to ‘get the NHS back to normal’, without giving them the respite and support they need, will not only result in increasingly high absence rates and staff reducing their hours, but also threaten patient care and safety, the BMA says.

In a new report  Rest, recover, restore: Getting UK health services back on track it argues that the pandemic has left the health service running on empty, with staff burnt out, disillusioned, and even considering leaving the NHS as a result of the intense pressures and stress of the past year.

It sets out a series of recommendations to UK Governments to ensure that services resume safely for both staff and patients, including:

  • All Governments and system leaders across the UK to have an honest conversation with the public about the need for a realistic approach to restoring non-Covid care, and support for systems to tackle the backlog.
  • Health, safety, and mental wellbeing of the workforce to remain a top priority.
  • Additional resourcing to help tackle the backlog.
  • Measures to expand system capacity.

Retired staff could rejoin workforce to help doctors recover from the pandemic

The report also suggests measures for UK Governments to make it easier for retired doctors to re-join the workforce and to take meaningful action to retain existing doctors.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “It’s clear that the backlog has to be reduced, but forcing doctors to just ‘get back to normal’ without respite and support is not the way forward and endangers patient safety and staffing ratios now and in the longer run. While some, exhausted and burnt out, might take more sick leave, others may decide to leave the NHS altogether – talented, committed healthcare professionals that embody everything our health service stands for.

“Fundamentally, asking too much of doctors too soon could not just have a detrimental impact on patient safety, it could potentially increase already lengthy waiting times – something both patients and doctors desperately want to avoid.

“As our report lays out, this realistic approach must be complemented with a dedicated effort to attract more staff into the NHS, not only to help bring down the numbers of patients on the waiting list, but to also fill gaps for existing staff taking time to recuperate."

According to the latest BMA tracker survey published last month more than half of respondents reported a worse state of overall health and wellbeing than during the first wave of the pandemic, while two thirds reported higher than normal levels of exhaustion or fatigue.

In the same survey, when asked if they have changed their career plans for the next year, 26% of doctors said they were more likely to take an early retirement, another 26% said they were more likely to take a career break, and 18% said the same about leaving the NHS for another career.