Not out of the woods yet

With the end of lockdown restrictions in sight, Unite urges government to see the bigger picture as NHS care backlog grows

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As the UK today (June 2) marks its first day of zero Covid fatalities in ten months, an ostensible end to the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 150,000 lives may well be in sight.

But an imminent post-pandemic future is by no means a foregone conclusion. While the vaccination programme has been an unequivocal success, with nearly 40 per cent of the adult population now fully vaccinated, scientists have warned we aren’t completely out of the woods yet.

Many have cautioned against the complete easing of Covid restrictions on the government’s planned date of June 21 after a surge in cases of a Covid-19 variant first found in India. The variant, called B.1.617.2, is quickly spreading in certain hotspots in the UK, and is now estimated to be present in three-quarters of all new Covid cases.

The variant is now thought to be more widespread than the Kent variant, which was previously the dominant strain of the virus in the UK, and it is also slightly more resistant to vaccines, especially after just one dose.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI)’s Professor Andrew Finn told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme that “the idea that somehow the job is done is wrong.”

“We’ve still got a lot of people out there who’ve neither had this virus, nor yet been immunised, and that’s why we’re in a vulnerable position right now,” he warned.

But while ministers and scientific experts weigh up the risks of completely ending Covid restrictions in just under three weeks’ time, Unite has warned that a longer-term approach must be taken to not only end the pandemic but also prepare for a post-pandemic future.

And that future, without careful planning that begins urgently, could be a frightening one, Unite has highlighted, as the growing NHS backlog in care continues to mount.

The most recent NHS figures published last month showed that nearly 5m people are waiting on hospital treatment, with 400,000 patients already forced to delay surgery for more than a year, and 1m people waiting for more than six months.

Last month, the government announced an additional £160m in extra funding to tackle the backlog in care through new initiatives to cut hospital wait times. Designated groups of NHS trusts in various parts of the country will be earmarked as ‘elective accelerators’ and will be given an extra £20m if they can carry out 20 per cent more activity, such as diagnostic test and operations, compared to this time last year.

The additional £160m comes on top of an extra £1bn already allocated to clearing the growing backlog – but critics have warned this goes nowhere near far enough.

The British Medical Association (BMA), for example, estimates that it will take at least £4bn in extra funding to clear the backlog in elective care in England. Meanwhile, NHS Providers, which represents trusts, said the extra funding the government has so far allocated could easily be totally spent by autumn. In April, the organisation estimated it would take three to five years, as a conservative estimate, to clear the backlog.

Commenting on the extra £160m in funding announced in May, BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said that “to trumpet a cash boost of £160m is wholly disingenuous”.

“Rather than dangling the prospect of a few million pounds to those healthcare providers who may not really have the staff or the facilities to deliver such ambitious results, NHS England and the government should be focusing on retaining the workforce,” he added.

Indeed, retaining an already exhausted and demoralised NHS workforce has never been more urgent at a time when huge swathes of health service staff are on the verge of quitting.

A new poll by the Mirror published just last week found that nearly half of nurses – about 43 per cent – are considering leaving the NHS, following in the footsteps of intensive care nurse Jenny McGee who cared for prime minister Boris Johnson when he was in hospital with Covid.

Last month, McGee spoke out publicly explaining that the government’s lack of respect for staff, and their failure to reward staff properly, led to her resignation.

The Mirror poll also found that 90 per cent of nurses feel the government doesn’t value them, while 85 per cent believed they were being unpaid fairly. The poll is only the latest in a growing mountain of research showing a looming retention and recruitment crisis in the NHS that will make clearing the onerous care backlog all but impossible.

And so as the government considers whether to push forward with its next and purportedly final step in the roadmap out of lockdown, Unite has urged ministers to see the bigger picture.

Commenting, Unite national officer for health Jackie Williams said, “The underlying issues are the urgent need for increased funding for the NHS to tackle the frightening backlog of treatments and operations such as hip replacements, and the requirement to have a fairly paid and valued NHS workforce in place to carry out these procedures.

“The government’s offer of 1 per cent for NHS workers in England will do nothing to assuage the looming recruitment and retention crisis in the health service,” she added.

“NHS staff have worked wonders to deliver the vaccination programme at pace — but now is the time for Health Secretary Matt Hancock to look beyond the short term and ensure sufficient funding from the Treasury is available to get the NHS back on an even keel over the next five years.”

By Hajera Blagg

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