Labour attacks government for having 'no plan' to help NHS staff 'slugging their guts out'

Doctors have told ITV News' Health Editor, Emily Morgan, that increased funding from the government is irrelevant unless staff vacancies are filled

The government has been accused of being out of touch and "out of ideas" to help NHS and social care staff who are "slugging their guts out" to get through the record backlog.

Therese Coffey set out her new "plan for patients" to receive easier access to NHS and social care services in her inaugural speech as health secretary in the Commons on Thursday.

As part of the new plan, she promised all patients in England will receive non-urgent GP appointments within two weeks, along with a £500 million fund to help adult social care, and a pledge to remove the "barriers" for retired medics to return to the profession.

"Patients are my top priority and I will be their champion," Ms Coffey told the Commons.

She told MPs that “most of the time, patients have a great experience but we must not paper over the problems we face”, as she noted there is “too much variation in the access and care people receive across the country”.

But Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting accused her of having "no plan" to help the NHS get through "the worst crisis it has ever seen", nor to provide the doctors it "so desperately needs".

He added: "Asking the Conservatives to fix the NHS is a bit like asking the arsonist to put out the fire they created.

"If that wasn’t bad enough, the supermassive blackhole part of her plan is a lack of a workforce strategy."

Ms Coffey acknowledged that the "scale of the challenge necessitates a national endeavour", adding that she wanted to draw on the “energy and enthusiasm” of people who volunteered during the pandemic.

She said she would make it easier for retired medics to return to the profession and also hoped to retain staff by changing pension laws - an issue she said was brought up by clinicians.

To take the pressure off GP surgeries, a range of workers – such as pharmacists, GP assistants and advanced nurse practitioners – will be used, while pharmacists will be given power to prescribe certain medications without a prescription.

She added that new phone systems will be introduced to avoid the 8am scramble for a GP appointment.

Mr Streeting retorted: "Staff slugging their guts out under the most difficult conditions in history will be particularly impressed by new cutting edge technology – the telephone."

"There is still no plan that comes close to meeting the scale of the challenge, no plan for staffing, no real plan for the NHS," he added.

"So it is clear, the longer the Conservatives are in power, the longer patients will wait."

In reference to a recent interview Ms Coffey gave in which she was interrupted by her alarm playing a Dr Dre song, Mr Streeting said: “As Dr Dre might say: time for The Next Episode.”

GPs have also slammed the "tone-deaf government approach" to the issues, saying they will have “minimal impact” on patient care, with leading medical organisations saying the health secretary did not meet with them before drawing up plans.

Mr Streeting earlier told ITV News it was "outrageous" that "after 12 years in government, the health secretary is presenting a two-week wait for patients as if it's good news".

He pointed out that under Labour, the target for GPs to offer patient appointments was 48 hours - and they met that.

However, Ms Coffey later told ITV News: "Well, actually, clinicians told us that was a terrible policy that they had to put in place and could be... quite harmful for patients."

She said patients needing urgent appointments will be seen the same day.

Patients will also be able to see how well their GP practice performs compared with others, potentially allowing them to join a different one if they believe they could receive faster care elsewhere.

On ambulances being stuck outside hospitals for hours because they are unable to hand over patients, she pledged “a laser-like focus on handover delays” to MPs.

She said 45% of ambulance handover delays are occurring in just 15 NHS hospital trusts.

Ms Coffey also pledged her commitment to keeping to the four-hour A&E target for people to be admitted, transferred or discharged.

The target has not been met since 2015. There have been four prime ministers in that time.

She told MPs how she recently waited nearly nine hours in A&E and still couldn't get treated.

“I was asked to go back the next day, so I went to a different hospital just three miles away and I was seen and treated appropriately," said Ms Coffey. “That’s the sort of variation that we’re seeing across the NHS.”

The number of 999 and NHS 111 call handlers will also be increased to answer calls more quickly.

Ms Coffey also said a £500 million fund would enable medically fit people to be discharged from hospital more quickly, supporting them to receive care in the community or their own homes instead.

The NHS Confederation said the "measures will not come close to ensuring patients who need to be seen can be within the timescales set out", at a time when there is a shortage of over 4,000 full-time equivalent GPs.

"They will have minimal impact on fixing the current problems that general practice is facing over the winter and could compromise continuity of care," said Ruth Rankine, director of primary care.

Dr Farah Jameel, chair of the British Medical Association's GP committee for England, said: “If the new Health Secretary had met with us before this announcement we could have suggested a workable strategy to address the unfolding crisis before us for this winter and beyond – instead we have in reality minor tweaks that will make no tangible difference to patients struggling to access care.”  “As clinicians, day in, day out we watch our communities suffer the harms of poorly thought-through headline-grabbing government announcements. These may be well-meaning but don’t address the fundamental issues," she added.

“Despite delivering over a million appointments a day with the lowest number of GPs we have ever recorded, we continue to struggle to deliver the care we know our patients so desperately need."