NHS facing 'perfect storm' if flu and Covid surge amid backlog of cases

23 June 2021, 07:32 | Updated: 23 June 2021, 07:42

The NHS is facing a "perfect storm", it has been warned
The NHS is facing a "perfect storm", it has been warned. Picture: PA

By Will Taylor

Fears the NHS could see a "perfect storm" of Covid-19 and respiratory illnesses have been voiced by health experts.

A new survey shows three-quarters of England's trust leaders are either extremely or moderately concerned about the winter amid fears that the plan to deal with a backlog in cases could be derailed.

Some believe it will depend on how much flu and Covid-19 circulate while others report they have already seen a rise in the need for urgent and emergency care.

Their fears have been raised after Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a flu vaccination drive, with experts worried about a bad flu season after lockdown restrictions and significantly reduced social mixing.

NHS Providers, which ran the survey, was told by the chief operating officer of a community trust in the South East: "I am worried that we will have a difficult flu season and we will have a run on the beds.

"This will destabilise the elective (planned treatments) recovery which will be very concerning given the length of time patients have already waited."

Read more: NHS staff burnout 'extraordinarily dangerous' for future of service, MPs warn

Read more: Long Covid clinics for children offered by NHS England

Of the 155 survey responses from 113 trusts, 40% said they were extremely concerned and 33% said they were moderately worried.

Responses came from trusts' chief executives, chief operating officers, medical directors and nursing and HR leaders.

Demand for mental health services has already exceeded capacity, the survey found, while a total of 48% of respondents have seen evidence of staff leaving due to early retirement, burnout from the pandemic or other issues arising from dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak.

Deputy chief executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery called for short-term funding for trusts, and money to improve patients' discharge.

Read more: NHS facing 'biggest pressure in history', Matt Hancock warns

She said trusts are battling on multiple fronts as they deal with Covid, demand for emergency care and the backlog caused by the pandemic, and added: "This is difficult at the best of times but, as we saw last year, could become even more challenging during the hard winter months, particularly with the expectation that flu will return and there will be increased respiratory viruses among children.

"Trusts are committed to clearing the backlog of care that built up during the pandemic.

"We are confident vaccines are breaking the chain between infections and hospital admissions, but the reality on the frontline is that even a small increase in Covid-19 admissions or emergency care pressures could affect our ability to deliver non-Covid services."

"We know the NHS faces a perfect storm of Covid-19, flu and other respiratory illnesses as well as a growing backlog of care," she added.

"We must act now."

Mr Hancock has previously warned there are 5.1 million people waiting for care in England, and that "even with the system running at 100 per cent, even with everybody working incredibly hard... we would have the biggest pressure on the NHS in its history."

An NHS spokesman said: "Throughout the pandemic, NHS staff have worked tirelessly to face the biggest public health emergency in NHS history, responding to demand for services by expanding hospitals' critical care capacity by 50%, managing admissions through mutual aid between hospitals and working with the independent sector.

"As we battle the global pandemic, we continue to use these tried and tested robust measures and we working with trust leaders to ensure hospitals continue to offer patients the care they need while tackling the waiting list backlog and vaccinating the country against Covid, as well as looking ahead to winter."