June 13, 2014 8:17 pm

NHS to tackle waiting lists with £600m winter funding boost

The NHS will receive a funding boost of more than £600m to tackle lengthening waiting lists and forestall a politically perilous pre-election winter crisis.

In a clear sign of the coalition’s determination to avoid a funding crunch before voters go to the polls next May, the health department announced that it is making £250m available to the NHS in July and August for a one-off programme to provide extra elective operations.

Officials acknowledged that there were 250,000 more patients waiting than this time last year, despite the health service performing 2,000 extra operations a day than in 2010.

This included an additional 30,000 patients waiting for eye treatment, 25,000 for trauma and orthopaedics, and 16,000 for gastroenterology.

“These new additional pressures mean that patients are not receiving their treatment or operations as soon as we would like,” says the department.

It blames demographic changes, saying that, with an ageing population, 1.5m more patients are being referred for treatment every month, up from 1.4m when the coalition came to power.

Announcing additional help for accident and emergency departments, it says the NHS will “be supported to ensure urgent and emergency care services are sustainable year-round and ready for the pressures that winter can bring”.

Insiders believe the service dodged a bullet last winter owing to the unseasonably mild weather and the lack of a flu epidemic, but could be facing different circumstances this winter.

The health department said £350m would be distributed to clinical commissioning groups, which control most of the health service budget. The funding would focus on “what local areas can do to minimise unnecessary pressure on A&E and how to treat more patients”, it added.

Local groups, made up of commissioners, hospitals and social services, will be able temporarily to recruit more nurses and doctors and secure more hospital beds if they can demonstrate they are necessary to meet demand, said the health department.

A further £50m will be allocated to a range of initiatives including NHS 111, the telephone advice service, and ambulance services.

In an interview with the Financial Times in March, Sir David Nicholson, who stepped down as chief executive of NHS England in April, made clear the service could tip into the red as early as 2014-15, saying only that it was “possible” the service would remain in overall surplus that year.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of the Foundation Trust Network, which represents the majority of hospitals, said providers would “welcome the additional funding to ensure the NHS continues to provide high quality accessible care throughout the winter pressures period”.

Taken together, the funding represented “a significant and welcome extra investment in NHS providers, demonstrating that government understands the exceptional pressure they are facing and that they are very well placed to deliver high standards of care with the right resources”.

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