How Prepared is the NHS for the Coronavirus Outbreak?

As the UK braces itself for Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s first Budget speech, NHS funding in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak will be one of the new Chancellor’s first priorities. Although he has not specified what additional resources the health service will receive, he has indicated that he will loosen the financial rules and ‘write a blank cheque’ to provide the money that it needs to fight this epidemic.

Sunak’s assurances come after warnings from doctors and other medical professionals that the NHS is already under too much pressure to be able to tackle a deterioration of the coronavirus outbreak.

Other measures that this Government has taken to help tackle the disease include enabling people to become NHS volunteers to help an already overstretched health service.

Retired staff could be brought back to help boost the health service’s capacity.

Under non-mitigation plans, non-coronavirus patients could be discharged early from hospital, and routine operations postponed.

Considering the Conservatives were elected last year on a manifesto pledge to deliver 50,000 new nurses, it will be interesting to see if the Chancellor sets aside any money to meet this commitment. It could be argued that the coronavirus has proven that there has never been a time when the NHS has needed extra staff so badly.

It is clear that the Government is willing to spend whatever amount is necessary to ensure that the health service can cope with increased demand resulting from this epidemic. Financially, the NHS is prepared for the coronavirus.

However, Dr. Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, told Sky News that the UK will see ‘many thousands’ contract the coronavirus. If thousands more are affected by it, it is difficult to assess what impact this will have on the health service.

This is a time of year when the NHS is already over-stretched. In November 2019, the British Thoracic Society (BTS) conducted a survey which discovered that the overwhelming majority of respondents (73 percent) feel that respiratory healthcare staff shortages are impairing the ability of their local NHS organisation to cope effectively with the increase in urgent respiratory hospital admissions in the winter.

57 percent of people complained that there are no extra staff available in their department. Considering it has been reported that the number of coronavirus cases is likely to shrink as the weather improves, medical professionals are right to warn the Government that they are already struggling with demand for NHS services as it is.

This proves that this crisis must reignite the debate over NHS reform so that it can cope with a pandemic like this better in the future. One sensible solution is to allow Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to compete with each other. Patients can also be provided with information as to how each one is performing. This would create brand recognition and improve competition.

Patients should also be provided with the choice of opting out of NHS commissioning. Insurers, employers and trade unions would be able to provide them with competitive packages. This would ease the burden off the NHS and enable private providers to be able to care for those who wish to have private healthcare, thereby cutting waiting lists in the long-term. It would also prevent the health service from becoming over-stretched.

Whilst the Government deserves to be commended for doing everything possible in a short space of time to prepare the health service for the coronavirus, once the pandemic has calmed down, the Conservatives must match their spending commitments with long-term reform. It is easy to throw money at a problem and hope it gets spent wisely. The NHS should never be left in a position where it struggles to cope with demand ever again.