£36 billion boost for health and social care
By Gemma Raw
In early September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out his plans for injecting £36 billion into the health and social care system over the next three years. Funded by a new 1.25% Health and Social Care Levy on taxpayers, the new investment is aimed at tackling NHS backlogs caused by COVID-19, as well as bringing the health and social care systems closer together on a 'long-term, sustainable footing'.
The unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic diverted resources away from elective surgery and routine treatment, taking the number of people on waiting lists to a record high of 5.5 million. The additional £12 billion in funding per year will enable the NHS to offer more appointments, operations and treatments, including extra diagnostic and preventative scans.
"It's absolutely right that NHS staff, who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to care for hundreds of thousands of COVID patients in hospital, get strong backing to recover routine services and begin to tackle the COVID backlog, " commented NHS Chief Executive Amanda Pritchard.
The new investment follows on from the 2021-22 Health and Care Bill, which will drive the biggest reform of the NHS for a decade and promote greater integration of health and social care in England.
Long-term staffing challenges
The pandemic was an unusual event and the new funding should help in the short term to get NHS services back to pre-pandemic levels. However, the problem of staff shortages is something the NHS has been dealing with for many years. Although the number of doctors working in the NHS and the number of people working in full-time equivalent nursing positions both increased in 2020, that's against the backdrop of an ageing population and hugely increased pressures on healthcare staff, even without the additional challenges of COVID.
According to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), there are currently almost 39,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS in England. And the Royal College of Midwives recently called for urgent action to tackle staff shortages, which they said had been 'brutally exposed' by the demands of COVID-19.
One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is that it has encouraged more people to think about taking up a nursing career. In February this year, Nursing Times reported that applications for nursing courses in the UK had risen by almost a third. However, it takes time to train nurses, so this is far from being a quick fix to the staffing shortages. What's more, with more and more people living with complex health conditions, the demand for nurses and allied health professionals is sure to continue to grow.
In her evidence to the Health and Care Bill Committee, RCN General Secretary & Chief Executive Pat Cullen told MPs that the workforce measures in the Bill must be strengthened. "The Bill as it stands will not address the nursing workforce shortages," she said. "The government at the highest level must have that accountability and responsibility for the assessment and planning of the workforce in nursing and the provision of that workforce in health and care services."