Jeremy Hunt has been warned the NHS will fail to deliver “the care we need as a nation” without more money.
NHS Providers, which represents a range of health services, warned the health secretary of a “watershed moment”, saying it was “impossible” for the health service to meet the standards of care defined in its constitution, as it struggles to cope with winter surges in cases of flu and respiratory illness.
The pressure became so bad that hospitals were told to delay tens of thousands of operations deemed not urgent until next month.
In a letter, NHS Providers warned the Government “can no longer delay key decisions” and failure to act would “harm the quality of care, causing delays and distress for patients and weakening staff morale. It could also undermine public faith in the NHS”.
Its chief executive Chris Hopson estimated the NHS is between 10,000 and 15,000 hospital beds short of what it needs.
“The NHS simply no longer has the capacity to meet the demand it is facing... We are now at the stage where we cannot maintain the NHS constitution without a long-term funding settlement,” Hopson told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on Thursday.
“If we want to provide the care we need as a nation, we must make a decision this year.”
The NHS is to release data later this morning which is expected to show care failing “in too many places too many occasions” despite NHS staff working “incredibly hard”, Hopson said.
He added the NHS had missed all its key targets in 2017 for the first time ever.
He told Today: “The time has now come to have a debate as a nation about whether we want to preserve the standards enshrined in the NHS constitution... We either fund the NHS to the extent where we can meet those standards or, and this is absolutely not what we want, we abandon those standards.”
In the letter to Hunt, the chief executive writes: “The current approach to managing winter pressures has become unsustainable - in the words of one of our board members this week: ‘we cannot carry on trying to manage the NHS in this way’’.
“This is symptomatic of a much wider issue - the mismatch between what the NHS is being asked to deliver and the funding and workforce available and the subsequent fragility of the wider NHS.”
“The NHS is no longer able to deliver the constitutional standards to which it is committed. We need to be realistic about what we can provide on the funding available,” he added.
“Despite planning for winter more thoroughly and extensively than before, it hasn’t been sufficient. Rising numbers of flu cases and more respiratory illness have placed intolerable pressures on staff...
“If we continue to run the NHS at close to 100% capacity, day in day out, permanently in the red zone, it’s not surprising that the service can’t cope when we get a high, but entirely predictable, spike in demand.”
He called for a “full and frank review” of the NHS’s response to winter pressures, adding: “We have reached the point where we can no longer delay key decisions on the long term funding of health and social care.”
He said organisations like the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Office for Budget Responsibility and the King’s Fund should investigate how to pool health and care funding and MPs should investigate “what is needed to create a sustainable NHS”.
Hunt kept his job in Theresa May’s reshuffle earlier this week but social care was added to brief, which is also facing a funding crisis.
Five A&E staff have told HuffPost of the situation they face on the frontline.
One West London nurse said: “What we used to consider a busy day ten years ago, with around 30 patients in the department, is now quite a nice day. These days, we regularly have 50 or 60.”
Hopson added: “There is so much at stake. We can fix this, but there must be no more delay. The ball is now firmly in the Government’s court.”