Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s own staff are worried that his deeply unpopular plans for a “seven-day” NHS service bring dangerous “risks”, leaked department of health documents reveal.
The documents expose the concerns of senior civil servants tasked with forcing through the plans, who say the crisis-hit NHS is so under-staffed and under-resourced that the changes could overload health workers.
The confidential papers, which were drawn up for Jeremy Hunt in late July and obtained by the Guardian and Channel 4 News, highlight 13 risks attached to enacting the measures – the biggest of which was “workforce overload” including for hospital consultants, GPs and health professionals.
A government spokesperson insisted a “seven-day NHS is on track, and will deliver real benefits for patients,” however Labour’s shadow health secretary, Diane Abbott, called the revelations a “shocking indictment.”
Abbott said, “They pressed ahead with their proposals even when campaigners and NHS staff argued they were unworkable. It has now been confirmed by the advice the government received from its own civil servants.
“I will be writing to Jeremy Hunt to ask him to explain why he has contravened his civil servants’ advice and to ascertain whether he has misled Parliament.”
The leak vindicates the unprecedented eight days of strike action taken by junior doctors against Hunt’s decision to redraw their contracts to include extra weekend working hours, even though junior doctors are already on duty during those periods.
Doctors in Unite chair, Dr David Wrigley, said NHS doctors were already under immense pressure because of staff shortages.
He said, “The papers just prove what NHS doctors have been saying all along. Junior doctors are consistently describing situations of high stress, tiredness and struggling to cope with demand. This is exacerbated by the constant pressure to take on more shifts to fill gaps.
“Jeremy Hunt’s so called seven day NHS is not going to alleviate any of that – he needs to listen to those working on the front line who really know what is going on in the NHS. It is quite clear to doctors that the NHS is on its knees because of funding cuts.”
According to a recent survey of 395 junior doctors, carried out by Doctors in Unite and the British Medical Association, the pressure on staff is so bad that signs of illness are being overlooked and blood tests are being delayed. One newly qualified doctor reported that he was left in charge of 100 patients, while another stated that “I’m out of my depth.”
More than 25 per cent of respondents said their rota was short of four or more junior doctors, 21 per cent said rota gaps were being left empty and 77 per cent reported that their rota gaps were being covered by a temporary measure, such as short term locum appointments or by existing staff taking on extra work.
Doctors in Unite member Dr Pete Campbell was one of those who carried out the survey.
He said, “This survey is just a snapshot of medical understaffing, which is happening on a significant, worrying and dangerous scale.
“Doctors believe that these rota gaps pose a direct threat to patient safety because the time-critical work they do is put under pressure.”
Health visitors under pressure
It is not just doctors facing debilitated pressures in the NHS. A Unite survey in July of 565 health visitors revealed 58 per cent reported big increases in workload compared with the previous year.
Morale was also low with 44 per cent saying their motivation had slumped, due overwhelmingly to workplace stress. Frequent staff shortages over the last year were reported by 70 per cent of respondents, with 86 per cent regularly working extra hours.
Unite national officer for health Sarah Carpenter commented, “The picture that clearly emerges is of a profession under a great deal of pressure as health visitors juggle increasing demands for their vital services with diminishing resources and shrinking pay packets.”
Despite a small chink of light on Tuesday (August 23) for NHS users in Fife, after Unite campaigners pressured the Scottish government to reduce health cuts in the region from £30.8m to £9.4m, the overall situation is of a health service in crisis, said Unite professional officer Obi Amadi.
She said, “NHS staff at the coalface have repeatedly warned that the current situation is unsustainable and that’s before Jeremy Hunt’s seven-day plans are put into place. He needs to listen to his own advisors and the people working in the NHS and work with them to find solutions.
“If NHS staff can’t cope with the increasing amounts of strain being put on them, then patient care will suffer. You can’t keep taking resources away and expect people to work harder and harder on less pay to make up for them. There needs to be a wholesale change of approach.”