Row erupts as Sunak claims NHS has funding to tackle crisis

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Rishi Sunak has said the NHS has all the funding it needs to deal with the crisis engulfing hospitals, despite repeated warnings from health leaders that immediate investment is needed to protect patients.

Senior doctors said the government was in denial about the catastrophe affecting the health service – with experts saying it is wrong to blame the fallout from the pandemic.

Healthcare officials have warned the NHS is on a knife edge, with many A&Es struggling to keep up with demand and trusts and ambulance services declaring critical incidents.

On Tuesday NHS leaders in London said ambulances would wait only wait 45 minutes to handover patients to hospital staff. Experts believe delays and other problems at A&Es across the country are responsible for the deaths of up to 500 patients a week at the moment.

Downing Street said the government has been “up front” with the public about the pressure the NHS faces this winter, with the Prime Minister’s official spokesman acknowledging the the health service is facing an “unprecedented challenge”.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said Mr Sunak was “nowhere to be seen” and accused him of a stance that was “negligent, irresponsible, and a risk to the public’s health”.

Critics said claims the NHS had enough resources were “an insult to all those suffering in hospital corridors or in the back of ambulances because the Government refused to act sooner.”

Angry Tory MPs also urged the government to get a grip on the chaos engulfing the NHS and other parts of the public sector, with strikes on the railways again creating misery for millions.

The row erupted after No 10 said the prime minister was “confident …we are providing the NHS with the funding it needs – and as we did throughout the pandemic – to deal with these issues.”

But Downing Street did admit some patients would find it difficult to access care, even as it sidestepped the word crisis.

Dr Vishal Sharma, from the BMA, which is balloting junior doctors for strike action, hit back saying: “For staff working in the NHS or any patients desperately trying to access care, it is plain for all to see that the NHS is completely broken. This did not happen overnight but is a direct result of the government underspending on health and ignoring repeated warnings from staff about workforce shortages, soaring demand and crumbling infrastructure.

“Fixing the NHS cannot be done overnight but the sad reality is that unless the Government takes action, things will continue to worsen, perhaps reaching the point where recovery becomes impossible.”

Adam Brimelow, director of communications at NHS Providers, said: “It is clear that the resources available to the NHS have not kept pace with the changing needs of the population.”

Others challenged Downing Street’s claim that one of the biggest drivers for the current crisis was the Covid backlog.

Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said it is “disingenuous to blame the current situation on the pandemic”, warning of staffing issues, a lack of beds and capacity and a lack of social care, “all problems which are due to under-resourcing”.

Dr Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, conceded that the government had been ‘up front’ about the challenges this winter, but “the reality has been more intolerable and unbearable for staff and patients than envisaged”.

“The shocking NHS acute care situation needs emergency action,” he added.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the NHS went into the pandemic with too many staff vacancies, a figure that now stands at more than 130,000, “and we were coming off the back of the longest financial squeeze in the NHS’s history”.

With another four days of strikes looming later this month, he also urged the government to reopen talks with unions over pay.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine warns that between 300 and 500 people a week are currently dying as a result of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care.

NHS England has said it does not recognise these numbers, but Dr Ian Higginson, the vice president of the college, accused political leaders of a “almost a battle of machismo and denial” about the crisis.

Mr Sunak is under increasing pressure from Tory MPs about the crises escalating on his watch. The prime minister is not scheduled to make any public appearances this week, with officials insisting he is hard at work inside Downing Street.

The last time they visited a hospital both the prime minister and his health secretary Steve Barclay were berated by members of the public.

One former Tory minister warned the chaotic scenes at hospitals and railway stations, with many were forced to work from home with the start of another rail strike, were “helping no-one…. except Labour”.

Mr Sunak is also facing growing calls from within his own party to change his stance on public sector pay rises. The prime minister has warned that going further risks stoking inflation.

But one Tory MP said it was time for Mr Sunak to compromise on NHS pay, even if he holds firm in other sectors. The red wall MP said the current stance was “unstainable”. “I don’t think saying, ‘We can’t afford it’, is going to work,” he said. “You can’t keep seeing if nurses or the government will win sympathy – you’re not going to win that.”

Former cabinet minister David Davis backed the government’s stance on pay – but warned Mr Sunak that he could lose the battle for hearts and minds over strikes unless the government gets better at making its argument.

“What’s an issue is the way the government is not really presenting its case,” he said. “People will die as a result of the NHS union strikes. We need to make that point clear. I want the government to make it clear to the public that there’s a price to this. They should be making a stronger argument.”

Lib Dem health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said the idea the NHS had enough funding was “an insult to all those suffering in hospital corridors or in the back of ambulances because the Government refused to act sooner,” she said. “Rishi Sunak should apologise to patients, nurses and paramedics for his Government’s failure on the NHS.”