The Health Select Committee have recently published a report entitled Clearing the backlog caused by the pandemic, which sets out a series of recommendations for the government to ensure that the quality and safety of patient care is not further compromised as the pandemic enters its third year.

While the report recognises that the government has made it a key priority to tackle the backlog of patients awaiting treatment and increase funding accordingly, Jeremy Hunt, the chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, has warned that the recovery plan “risks being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis.”

He said that the NHS is currently facing an “unquantifiable challenge” in tackling the backlog, with 5.8 million patients now waiting for planned care and millions more ‘missing’ patients expected to come forward in the coming years.

Hunt says that unless the government “wakes up to the scale of the staffing crisis and urgently develops a long-term plan to fix the issue” the NHS will be able to deliver “little more than day to day firefighting”.

Better workforce planning vital to effective recovery

With 93,000 vacancies for NHS positions and shortages reported in nearly every speciality, the report states that better workforce planning is vital to the NHS’s recovery. The committee warn that while staff shortages persist, not only will patient safety and quality of care be compromised, but the mental health of health care professionals is also at risk.

Unless this is urgently addressed, the report says there is a significant risk that staff will leave the service altogether or cut their hours, putting yet more strain on the health service.

Responding to the Committee’s inquiry, Dr Layla McCay director of policy at the NHS Confederation said the Confederation agrees that “the greatest threat to tackling the care backlog is the staffing crisis”.

The report notes that the Government decided to resist an amendment to the Health and Care Bill that would have required it to publish workforce numbers at least once every two years, and urges the government to rethink this decision.

McCay agrees that there should be independently audited assessments at regular intervals on the NHS’s workforce requirements, as “without a properly planned and resourced strategy for recruiting to the 93,000 vacancies in the NHS, any recovery strategy will fail.”

The BMA have similarly called for regular workforce assessments, as “it’s only with this kind of transparent and open forecasting that the NHS has a realistic prospect of both recruiting and retaining enough staff to provide the required levels of care in the long term to adequately and safely staff the system.”

Calls to drop numerical target driven approaches

The report also calls for the government to drop numerical target driven approaches, as while the committee admits a focus on waiting lists is understandable, they say this tactic risks jeopardising equally important areas of care that keep people healthy and out of hospital.

Instead, the report calls for practices to respond to the needs of their local populations and work together with patients to establish the most fitting medium for their consultations based on clinical outcomes.

Dr David Wrigley, BMA deputy council chair, said the Association are also “pleased to read” the at the Committee has dismissed numerical target-driven approaches. He said: “All doctors must be trusted to respond to individual patient need and not be driven by arbitrary bureaucracy. And our calls for honest communication and a commitment to keeping in touch with patients have also been heard, with the report stating that no patient should feel ‘abandoned’ by the NHS, even if their waiting times are extremely long.”

“We now need the government to act on these proposals”

Ultimately, the report suggests the government work with health professionals to form a broad national health and care recovery plan, which embraces social care, emergency care, mental health services, general practice and community care.

Health professionals are now calling for the government to listen and act on the recommendations laid out by the Committee, as Wrigley states: “This report is a clear indication that the voice of doctors has been heard, but we now need the Government to act on these proposals.”