Very high rates of Covid-19 infections are having a “major impact” on the health service, which is facing pressures as they would in a “bad winter” well into spring, health leaders have said.
The NHS Confederation called on the Government to reconsider its Living with Covid plan as it said that ministers risk “abandoning” the NHS if they do not take action.
The membership body, which represents healthcare organisations, said Government messaging to the public could “mislead the public and discourage them to take steps to reduce transmission, contributing to the very high rates of Covid-19”.
It called for “mitigating actions” to help the NHS which is grappling with 20,000 Covid patients, high rates of staff absences, full hospitals and severe demands on emergency care.
“The brutal reality for staff and patients is that this Easter in the NHS is as bad as any winter,” said Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation.
“But instead of the understanding and support NHS staff received during 2020 and 2021, we have a Government that seems to want to wash its hands of responsibility for what is occurring in plain sight in local services up and down the country.
“No 10 has seemingly abandoned any interest in Covid whatsoever.
“NHS leaders and their teams feel abandoned by the Government and they deserve better.”
The organisation said that in the last week alone 20 emergency departments in England have been forced to turn patients away as they issued “diverts” due to being too full.
The NHS Confederation called into question whether plans to tackle the record backlog of care are realistic.
It called for stronger messages to the public on how to reduce transmission, including wearing the best possible face masks, and urging people to get vaccinated.
There also needs to be medium-term plans put into place, including better ventilation in public spaces, it added.
Meanwhile, ministers should reconsider asking the NHS to foot the bill for Covid-19 tests for staff – estimated to cost the NHS “several hundred million pounds” which is being taken away from patient care.
Mr Taylor said that the nation was “behaving as if this pandemic is over, but it is not over in relation to the challenges facing the health service”.
He told BBC Breakfast: “There is a lack of awareness of engagement pressures the health service is under and it’s particularly felt in hospitals at the ambulance service, but it’s actually across the system as a whole.
“Because although we’re much better at dealing with Covid, with fewer people dying and ending up in intensive care, it is still a disease that puts immense pressure on the health service.
“It is adding to the demand which already exists – partly to do with the number of people who are waiting for treatment.
“So we have a situation in our health service now which is as bad as any winter, even though we’re approaching Easter and it’s really important that we understand that this has happening.
“In our view, we do not have a ‘Living with Covid’ plan, we have a ‘living without restrictions’ ideology, which is different. We need to put in place the measures that are necessary to try to alleviate the pressures on our health service while this virus continues to attack.”
Mr Taylor told Times Radio: “We have unprecedented demand in all parts of the health service, last week we saw several key incidents where, for example, accident emergency departments had to turn ambulances away and we had NHS trusts declaring a particular state of urgency in terms of what services they’re able to provide.
“A large part of that is because we have 20,000 patients in the UK in hospital with Covid – now only about half of those people are in hospital because of Covid but nevertheless, if you get Covid when you’re in hospital that adds complications, and they’re also issues of infection control.
“So you put all that together with the fact that we have still got all the effects of two years of built-up backlog in terms of people waiting for treatment, people sick in the community, and it’s a very difficult situation in the health service.
“And it seems to be one that the Government does not want to talk about.”
He added: “We’re not hearing messages encouraging the public to be responsible.”
A spokesperson for Department of Health and Social Care said: “The success of our vaccination and antivirals programmes alongside increased public understanding on managing risk means we can start living with Covid – with public health guidance and free testing focused on groups who are most at risk from the virus.
“We are incredibly grateful to NHS staff and we have set out our plan to tackle the Covid backlog and deliver long term recovery and reform, backed by our record multibillion-pound investment over the next three years.
“We are on track to deliver 50,000 more nurses by 2024, there are over 4,300 more doctors compared to last year, and we are investing hundreds of millions in growing the workforce.”