Theresa May has insisted the NHS is “better prepared for the winter than ever before”, despite the cancellation of tens of thousands of operations.
The prime minister said on Wednesday afternoon the health service had received “extra funding” to deal with the expected winter crisis.
But Labour said May had shown herself to be “entirely out of touch” and accused her of “burying her head in the sand”.
May’s comments came as Jeremy Hunt apologised to patients who had seen their operations cancelled or delayed and admitted the NHS needed “substantially more resources” to cope with the “huge pressures” it faced.
Earlier today, Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative chair of the Commons health committee, told May to “get a better grip” on the health system.
Niall Dickson, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said health service was under “intolerable strain” and the extra money put in by the government had been “too little too late”.
Hospitals in England have been told to delay pre-planned operations and routine outpatient appointments until the end of the month due to severe winter pressures.
Officials have estimated that this could lead to up to 55,000 deferred operations.
A number of ambulance services are also under severe pressure, with two even resorting to taxis to ferry patients to hospital.
The NHS also announced that sanctions for mixed sex accommodation breaches should be temporarily lifted to deal with overcrowding.
Speaking in Wokingham, May praised NHS staff for doing a “fantastic job” during the “extra pressures in winter”.
“The NHS has been better prepared for this winter than ever before, we have put extra funding in,” she said.
“There are more beds available across the system, we’ve reduced the number of delayed discharges of elderly people who would otherwise have been in NHS beds rather than in social care.
“But I recognise for those people that have had their operations postponed this is disappointing, it’s frustrating.”
In a separate interview on Sky News, Hunt said the cancellation of operations was “absolutely not what I want”.
The health secretary said the move had been done in a “planned way” rather than at the “last minute” as happened last year.
“I think that in the end that is better for people, although if you are someone whose operation has been delayed I don’t belittle that for one moment and indeed I apologise to everyone who that has happened to,” he said.
Hunt also said he thought the NHS would need “substantially more resources in the years ahead”.
“There is a longer term funding issue we have to address as a society because want our NHS to be the best,” he said.
Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said May had shown herself to be “entirely out of touch”.
“She will next be trying to lecture patients that ‘nothing has changed’ for patients,” he said.
“The reality is we see hospitals at full capacity, ambulances backed up, cancelled operations and patients waiting for hours on trolleys.
“Instead of burying her head in the sand Theresa May needs to explain why she has allowed underfunding and cuts to health and social care to continue.”
Dickson, from the NHS Confederation, said: “The NHS is under enormous pressure and this decision simply reflects that reality. Our members warned repeatedly that this winter was likely to put an already stretched system under intolerable strain. Something has to give and this move - although unpalatable - makes sense.
“In many ways the health service in England is better prepared than ever before, but that does not prevent a situation where hospitals are having to cope with unsafe levels of bed occupancy. The numbers of people needing to be admitted has grown and the shortages in the community too often mean it is impossible to secure appropriate care for patients even when they are better.
“There was some extra money in the budget but £335 million was frankly too little too late – and it did nothing to ease the social care crisis.
“NHS staff have done a wonderful job over the Christmas period. But as today’s announcement makes clear, in spite of this, many patients and their families will not be given the treatment and care they need.”