Around a third of doctors do not believe the NHS is ready for the challenges of winter, the Royal College of Physicians has found.
A poll for the college found medics also felt personally unprepared to deal with upcoming pressures, with many suffering exhaustion and feeling demoralised.
The NHS is bracing itself for what could be a difficult winter due to the combination of Covid-19 and seasonal flu.
In comments, one medic said that “morale in the workforce is at an all-time low”, while another said: “Can’t see an end to it.”
Another respondent said: “Winter is coming – uncertain times. If not prepared it can go pear-shaped and end up in a bad way. Our region is already feeling the pinch of increased numbers at the front end and struggling with social care.
“We remain optimistic and proud to be a part of NHS in fighting past, present and future waves of pressures and keep patients safe as much as humanly possible. I only hope government recognises and reinforces our workforce and supports us.”
What pressures does the NHS face this winter?
A report in the summer from the Academy of Medical Sciences found that hospital admissions and deaths from flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) could be more than double those seen in a normal year, leading to as many as 60,000 flu deaths.
The government has launched the biggest flu programme in the NHS’s history, with more than 35 million people in England eligible for a free vaccine.
Covid booster jabs are also being rolled out, with around 28 million people in England eligible for a third dose.
What are doctors warning of?
In the new RCP poll of more than 800 doctors, eight out of 10 of whom were consultants and most of whom worked in the NHS, 36% said their organisation was not at all prepared for winter.
Some 27% of doctors said they were personally unprepared, and almost two thirds said they were feeling tired or exhausted.
Overall, 37% of staff said they were demoralised and 33% felt pessimistic.
The RCP said there is an urgent need for a workforce plan to ensure there are enough staff for the NHS and social care now and in the future.
Alongside the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, NHS Providers, NHS Confederation, Macmillan Cancer Support and others, the RCP has proposed an amendment to the Health and Care Bill.
The amendment would strengthen workforce planning by ensuring that every two years the Health Secretary publishes independently-verified assessments of current and future workforce numbers consistent with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) long-term fiscal projections.
Andrew Goddard, president of the RCP, said: “There are no two ways about it – it’s an incredibly difficult time to be working in medicine.
“Some things, such as embracing flexible working, will help to improve morale now, while increasing the size of the workforce will ensure that in future, staff never feel as under pressure and undervalued as they do today.
“We need a commitment from government to produce regular, independent and published assessments of future workforce requirements across the NHS and social care.
“This will give us much-needed long-term projections of workforce needs so that enough staff are being trained up to meet those requirements.”
The RCP said it wants more to be done immediately to improve the conditions under which doctors and other clinicians are working.
In a new article, three RCP officers said there is a growing desire for flexible working and argue that the key to improving morale is giving back doctors some control over their working lives.
The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said: “This new survey reinforces our concerns about pressures facing the NHS this winter.
“NHS frontline staff continue to work incredibly hard and trust leaders pay tribute to their commitment and dedication.
“It is always deeply concerning to hear reports of low morale among the medical workforce. Trust leaders have repeatedly raised concerns about workforce burnout in the NHS.
“This is even more important as we head into the challenging winter months. The NHS is already under significant strain as the health service works flat out to recover care backlogs, deal with increased demand for emergency care, while grappling with serious staffing pressures.
“This winter the NHS could be the busiest it’s ever been. It is vital national bodies work with NHS leaders to get the planning for winter pressures right to help manage the risk ahead.”