AN NHS chief today insisted the health service had entered the winter period “in a way that we’ve never prepared before”, despite routine appointments and procedures being delayed. Elizabeth Arnold reports

PROFESSOR Keith Willett, director for acute care at NHS England, raised some eyebrows today with his claim that the NHS is better prepared than ever for the winter period.

He was responding to questions about the decision to defer non-urgent inpatient elective care until January 31 in a bid to tackle a growing winter crisis in the health service.

Prof Willett acknowledged the delay to planned operations and routine outpatient appointments until the end of the month was “not ideal” for patients.

Asked if the decision might feel like a crisis for those affected, he said: “I fully accept that for the individual that will be really very uncomfortable, but what we know is if we don’t have a plan in place and we don’t do this in a structured way, what will happen, as we’ve had in previous winters, is lots of last-minute cancellations which is really distracting for patients, it’s inconvenient, it upsets the plans they’ve put together with their family, particularly for elderly patients where their care needs are often quite significant.”

Prof Willett told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the NHS was “better prepared” and clear recommendations were being implemented to deal with pressures.

He said: “A crisis is when you haven’t got in place mitigations and you haven’t got a plan to deal with it.

“We’ve gone into this winter in a way that we’ve never prepared before, so we went into the winter before Christmas having cancelled fewer elective operations than we had previously, discharges from hospital were at a lower level than they had been previously, so we were better prepared.

“We’ve also set up a national, regional and local structure – if you like, a winter pressures protocol – which we are invoking now and we are monitoring a whole series of things, activity in the service and the pressures.

“We are monitoring the weather alerts in anticipation of weather changes because we know that’s important, and we also monitor the seasonal illnesses like flu.

“We’ve started to see those change, that’s why the National Emergency Pressures Panel has now come out with these clear recommendations.”

His comments came as doctors’ leaders and unions called for a rethink of funding for the health service. The British Medical Association said NHS funding is “well below” what other comparable European countries spend on healthcare and the union Unite said the Government had “failed” to provide sufficient funding.

But Prof Willett, who said he had seen “similar” pressures in the NHS “way back in the ‘90s”, added that the National Emergency Pressures Panel had “listened really carefully” to frontline colleagues.

He said: “We fully appreciated the outstanding efforts necessary in some hospitals to manage the demand, to ensure that patients got the right care and to keep patients safe and it’s in response to that that we’ve taken the view that with the cold weather ... coming in this weekend, with the incidence of flu rising in the community and in our hospitals, and the pressures that we always see in the first weeks in January after the festive period, that it’s important that we give the hospitals time and space to manage the demand that we anticipate will come through.”

Asked if there could be further postponements, he said: “That’s certainly a possibility ... Intention always is not to cancel patients or postpone patients more than once – that’s one of the principles we try to follow – but clearly it is unpredictable.

“We don’t know what the weather will do, we don’t know the pressures in the system, we’re taking precautionary action here.”