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Wednesday, 07 January 2015

Labour calls for emergency summit on health & social care

Written by The Press Association

Labour has called on the Government to convene an emergency summit of health, social care, council and emergency services to find ways to ease the pressures on struggling accident and emergency departments.

Several hospital trusts have been forced to activate major incident plans to cope with a surge in demand, and David Cameron has admitted the NHS is under "pressure" after waiting times in England plummeted to their worst levels in more than a decade.

The Prime Minister dismissed union claims that the service was "on the brink of disaster" but shadow health secretary Andy Burnham (pictured) said a co-ordinated plan was urgently needed to address a "rapidly deteriorating position".

Mr Burnham sought to keep up the political pressure over the NHS - which the Opposition has put at the centre of its general election campaigning - after some health professionals warned of a looming crisis.

He has published a letter to Jeremy Hunt accusing the Health Secretary of failing to anticipate the impact of cuts on social care capacity leaving frail elderly people "trapped in hospital" and blaming difficulties getting GP appointments and staff shortages for the delays.

Mr Burnham told ITV's Good Morning Britain (GMB) that health and social care should be brought together as "one budget", saying it did not make sense trying to save money on social care but then spending "thousands" on people who end up in hospital.

He told GMB: "I repeatedly warned throughout this parliament that if you cut social care, if you take away support from older people in their homes, in the end that falls back on the NHS because people end up going into hospital and they become trapped there."

He added: "I think the time has come actually to see them as one budget, not seeing the council (social care) budget and then the NHS budget over here. See them as one budget and start to care for older people very differently. Start in their own homes and support them there."

However, Mr Burnham would not be drawn on whether his party would increase funding if it won May's election.

A senior doctor in one of the hospitals which has declared a major incident has warned that there was no quick fix to the problem.

Dr Chris Moulton, a consultant in emergency medicine at the Royal Bolton Hospital, told the Daily Mirror: "There is no quick fix to the A&E crisis. The Government says it has ploughed an extra £700 million into the NHS to help over winter.

"It's like giving someone £50 at midnight on Christmas Eve and telling them to get themselves a present. It's just too late now."

There has also been criticism of the NHS 111 helpline, with some saying that non-medically trained call handlers were sending too many people to A&E, helping to trigger the crisis.

Under the 111 system call handlers ask patients questions based on computer algorithms, but care leaders have warned that handlers are disproportionately recommending patients go to A&E because of a lack of other services.

Suzanne Mason, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Sheffield, told The Times the number of patients sent to A&E at the weekend by 111 is a "huge problem" and that parts of the country had been "brought to their knees" by it.

She said: "There are certain times of day and days of the week when call handlers get to the bottom of the algorithm and look at what services are available locally and there isn't anything there."

Mr Burnham told GMB: "NHS Direct was trusted and I don't understand why they got rid of it and replaced nurses on the end of phones with call handlers using a computer screen. That didn't make sense and that is resulting in more people being told 'oh well we can't help you, go to A&E' and that's got to change."

The latest A&E figures showed just 92.6% of patients were seen within four hours - notably below the 95% target and a marked fall on the worst performance previously recorded since the coalition came to power of 94.1% at the start of 2013.

When broken down, the quarterly records show the country's major A&E departments fared even worse, with fewer than nine in 10 patients - 88.9% - being seen within the target.

Overall, 5.6 million patients turned up to emergency departments during the three months up to the end of December, the records show.

Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge became the latest hospital to activate a major incident plan to cope with the surge in demand.

Peterborough and Stamford Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, University Hospitals of North Midlands in Staffordshire, Walsall Manor Hospital and the Royal Bolton Hospital have also declared major incidents.

Mr Burnham also defended Labour's changes to GP contracts in the face of criticism of access to GP appointments.

The former health secretary told GMB: "At the time when GPs were responsible 24 hours a day we couldn't get them to work in some of the most deprived communities so changes had to be made.

"But by the time we left government people could get an appointment within 48 hours and that was scrapped by this Government and one of the things we would say now is bring that back, give people early access to their GPs."

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