Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has ben accused of “fleeing the scene” after tens of thousands of pre-planned operations could be postponed as hospitals battle severe winter pressures.
In a drastic step to try to free up hospital staff and beds, NHS England urged hospitals to defer day-case procedures and routine outpatient appointments until January 31. Officials have estimated that this could lead to up to 55,000 deferred operations.
Labour has accused Hunt of “doing a Grayling” by refusing to appear on TV and radio to defend the government.
And Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative chair of the Commons health committee, said Theresa May and Philip Hammond needed to “get a better grip” on the the NHS.
Some hospitals have declared themselves at the most severe pressure level while doctors warned that scores are operating at almost full capacity.
Meanwhile a number of ambulance services are also under severe pressure, with two even resorting to taxis to ferry patients to hospital.
NHS England also announced that sanctions for mixed sex accommodation breaches should be temporarily lifted.
Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow health minister, said: “Patients and staff deserve better than a health secretary doing a ‘Grayling’, going to ground and refusing to explain the appalling downturn in standards of care this winter.
“Instead of running scared, Jeremy Hunt must answer for his party’s sustained underfunding of our NHS which has already caused such misery right across the country. After five years in the job he should be taking responsibility not fleeing the scene.”
Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, was yesterday accused of having “gone into hiding” after he visited Qatar on the same day millions of Britons faced inflation-busting rail rises.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4′s Today programme this morning, Wollaston said the prime minister and chancellor needed to be “pulling more levers” to prevent problems in the health service.
“The point is is you have a very major increase in people who are living longer with complex conditions that produces particular demands on the health system that I think they need to get a better grip on, to understand the sheer scale of increase in demand across health and social care, and that’s what they need to do better planning for,” she said.
“There are many people prepared to come together with good will across political parties to help them achieve that and I think they should take that opportunity.:
Wollaston worked worked as a GP before being elected as the Tory MP for Totnes.
The measures from the health body were announced following a meeting of its National Emergency Pressures Panel, chaired by Professor Sir Bruce Keogh.
In a statement, NHS England said that the panel discussed “sustained pressure over the Christmas period” with high levels of respiratory illness, high bed occupancy levels, signs of increased flu activity and a rise in the number of severe cases attending A&E.
Sir Bruce, NHS England national medical director, said: “I want to thank NHS staff who have worked incredibly hard under sustained pressure to take care of patients over the Christmas.
“We expect these pressures to continue and there are early signs of increased flu prevalence.
“The NHS needs to take further action to increase capacity and minimise disruptive last-minute cancellations. That is why we are making these further recommendations.”