A “real sprint” will be needed before winter to protect the NHS from the combined threats of seasonal flu, Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis, the Health Secretary has said.
Steve Barclay warned hospitals face “very serious challenges” ahead of an expected influx of patients and the health system cannot afford for the Government to drag its heels on the issue.
Mr Barclay told The Telegraph: “We have very real challenges coming down the track in the autumn and winter, and as far as I’m concerned there needs to be a real sprint within Whitehall, and particularly in the Department of Health, to get ready for September.
“Part of my role is to prepare for reasonable worst case scenarios. Obviously those pressures can come in different forms. It might be you get a bad flu, it may be Covid rates are higher than we would expect or like.
“There’s an urgency of now to prepare, particularly in areas where there’s a long lead time. The decisions need to happen now, not wait until the autumn – by which time those lead times would put the resolution at too late a stage.”
His comments come amid fresh concerns over a staffing crisis in the NHS, with an analysis of workforce figures finding the health service may be becoming over-reliant on recruits from abroad.
Figures from NHS Digital show the share of healthcare staff recruited from overseas almost doubled between 2014 and 2021, according to an analysis by the BBC.
According to the broadcaster, 34% of doctors joining the health service in 2021 came from overseas – a rise from 18% in 2014.
The BBC also found the share of UK doctors joining the health service had fallen from 69% in 2015 to 58% last year while the share of new UK nurses fell from 74% to 61% in the same period.
Meanwhile, the share of doctors recruited from outside the UK and the EU rose from 18% to 34% and the share of nurses rose from 7% to 34%.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, called for “urgent action” from the Government to tackle “chronic staff shortages in the longer term”.
He said: “While there is also a focus on growing and retaining the domestic workforce, we can’t escape the fact that there are 105,000 vacancies in the NHS and 165,000 vacancies in social care.
“We are in need of urgent action and the new prime minister must commit to publishing a fully costed and funded workforce plan to tackle chronic staff shortages in the longer term.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We continue to grow the NHS workforce who deliver the quantity and quality of health care the government has promised. There are over 4,300 more doctors and 10,200 more nurses working in the NHS compared to last year, and we are on track to deliver 50,000 more nurses by 2024
“We’re boosting our homegrown recruitment – including by opening five new medical schools and providing a 25% increase in funding for medical school places over three years to 2020, with the first graduates from this cohort entering foundation training this year.
“Internationally trained staff have been part of the NHS ever since its inception and they continue to play a vital role in helping us tackle the Covid backlogs. We have recently signed bilateral agreements with countries like India, Philippines, Kenya, Malaysia and Sri Lanka to support the recruitment and training of nurses.”