The plan also sets out interventions to improve access to general practice appointments, with the expectation that everyone who needs one should get an appointment at a GP practice within two weeks – and that the patients with the most urgent needs should be seen within the same day.
As well as more support staff, an enhanced role for pharmacists and new telephone systems, changes will also be made to NHS pension rules to retain more experienced NHS clinicians and remove the barriers to staff returning from retirement, increasing capacity for appointments and other services. This includes extending retirement flexibilities to allow retired and partially retired staff to continue to return to work or increase their working commitments without having payment of their pension benefits reduced or suspended, and fixing the unintended impacts of inflation, so senior clinicians aren’t taxed more than is necessary.
Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Thérèse Coffey said: “Patients and those who draw on care and support are my top priority and we will help them receive care as quickly and conveniently as possible. That is why we are publishing Our Plan for Patients, which will help empower and inform people to live healthier lives, while boosting the NHS’ performance and productivity. It sets out a range of commitments for our health service, ensuring we create smoother pathways for patients in all parts of health and care.”
Alongside the government’s plan, the Health and Social Care Secretary called for a “national endeavour” to support the NHS. This includes encouraging more volunteering across the health service, as well as exploring strengthening how we use volunteers, such as supporting NHS ambulances in the areas of greatest need.
Funding of £15 million this year will also help increase international recruitment of care workers. The funding will enable local areas to support care providers with activities such as visa processing, accommodation and pastoral support for international recruits. This will complement a national domestic recruitment campaign, which will launch shortly.
Responding to the publication of Our Plan for Patients, Dr Jennifer Dixon, chief executive of the Health Foundation, said: “Government has set out a few short-term fixes for a health and care system under incredible strain. While welcome, they are tiny compared to the scale of the challenges. Without extra investment to cope with inflation or unfunded pay increases, the NHS is being asked to do more with less, which will not serve patients well. Per capita spend on health care in the UK is low compared to many Western European countries – and the public back additional investment.
“Funding to support hospital discharges over winter may help in the short-term, but it’s not clear whether there will be new money to pay for it. Meanwhile, the social care system is on its knees. Staff shortages are widespread, pay and conditions are poor, and many people go without the care they need. People need support in the community to live independently – not just to free up space in hospitals. We estimate around £8 billion extra investment in social care is needed by 2024-25 to meet changing needs, improve access to care and boost staff pay.
“Public satisfaction with general practice is falling and it makes sense for government to do more to support GPs. Expanding the primary care team is sensible but practices will need help to make the best of new roles, as well as investment in infrastructure. Most patients (around 85%) already get an appointment within two weeks of booking and 44% on the same day. People value speed of access but also convenience and continuity with their GP. A new target should be monitored for unintended consequences – not least putting extra pressure on GPs already under major strain. And the target doesn’t address the stark reality that there simply aren’t enough GPs. GP numbers are already 4,200 short of what is needed to deliver pre-pandemic levels of care. This shortfall could double by 2030-31.
“Chronic staff shortages are holding back the NHS and social care and addressing them is a top priority for the public. Staff gaps stand at around 132,000 in NHS Trusts and 165,000 in social care. Pragmatic measures to help recruit and retain staff right now are essential. But both the NHS and social care desperately need long-term strategies for expanding the workforce, backed by sustained government investment.
“The government’s ABCD list of priorities seems to ignore the bigger task of improving the nation’s health, not just its health services. The NHS was not set up to go it alone: protecting and improving people’s health depends on wider services and support, like local government and social security, which have been eroded over the last decade. The NHS is often left to pick up the pieces. Failure to take prevention and public health seriously will store up even more problems for the future. This plan is a baby step in the right direction, but there is a very long way to go.”