A government cash boost aimed at helping the NHS get on an even financial keel has been swallowed up by the winter crisis and other day-to-day pressures, a new report has revealed.
The National Audit Office says £1.8 billion, handed to the health service in 2016 to give it breathing space to set itself up to survive on significantly less funding in future years, has been spent almost entirely on dealing with existing problems with increased demand and budget constraints.
While the fund helped the health service improve its financial position from a £1,848 million deficit in 2015/16 to a £111 million surplus in 2016/17, the report reveals it is still struggling to manage increased activity and demand within budget.
Staff in hospitals across the country have reported poor working conditions including long, short-staffed shifts, leading to delays in patient care, while latest performance figures show 100,000 people have been left waiting in the back of ambulances this winter.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the report “confirms the government’s flawed and wholly inadequate approach to the sustainable, long term funding of the NHS”.
He added: “Ministers have failed to increase per head spending in real terms each year, a key election promise, and there are still no details of a long overdue pay rise for NHS staff.
“Our NHS is in crisis. Years of under-investment culminated in December 2017 being the worst month on record for A&E performance and elective operations being cancelled until the end of January.
“Targets are being missed and in-year cash injections are not improving the financial performances of trusts.
“Unlike the Tories, Labour outlined a costed long term plan for funding the NHS. Labour will give our NHS an extra £6 billion a year to ensure that our NHS remains a world class service for all.”
The NAO also reveals action taken by trusts to rebalance their finances have restricted the cash available for longer-term transformation to deal with demand and improve the service, leading to many having to request short-term funding boosts in the form of loans from the Department of Health.
Alongside the release of the report, the organisation has made recommendations to the government, NHS England and NHS Improvement on how they can help improve the sustainability of the service.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The NHS has received extra funding, but this has mostly been used to cope with current pressures and has not provided the stable platform intended from which to transform services.
“Repeated short-term funding-boosts could turn into the new normal, when the public purse may be better served by a long-term funding settlement that provides a stable platform for sustained improvements.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “As this report recognises, the NHS has made significant progress towards balancing the books and returning to a financially stable position – to support this we recently gave it top priority in the budget with an extra £2.8 billion, on top of a planned £10 billion a year increase in its budget by 2020/21.”