The combined effect of backlogs, Covid-19, flu and strikes on the NHS is expected to be so great this winter that doctors and nurses have been given official permission to scale back on “established rules to care for people” if necessary to keep the health service going.
In a sobering letter to NHS staff, the UK’s four chief medical officers, the medical director of NHS England, and the head of the General Medical Council say that this year’s winter pressures will be “significant and potentially prolonged” and could be made even worse by staff sickness or other absence.
The letter reassures doctors and nurses that any complaints as a result of departing from these “established procedures” will be seen in the context of “local realities and the need at times to adapt practice at times of significantly increased national pressure”, meaning they may not face disciplinary action from their regulatory body if they make mistakes.
While NHS England said that such letters were sent annually to NHS staff ahead of winter, and at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, NHS chiefs have warned that this year will be particularly difficult for hospitals as they grapple with a likely wave of Covid-19 cases, a rise in admissions due to flu, an already under-pressure A&E service and a threatened nurses strike.
Backlogs caused by the pandemic have been made worse because a crisis in social care beds means that hospitals cannot discharge elderly patients into care homes or the community.