The NHS frontline is always under considerable pressure over the winter period as demand for services tends to increase significantly with the onset of cold weather and flu. However, in recent years this pressure has been building not just at winter but throughout the year. Under the weight of increasing demand, constrained resources and workforce shortages, the NHS has been struggling to meet the constitutional standards – in 2016 for the first time, all key performance standards were missed. In this context, the winter months pose a significant risk to patients.
In response, NHS trusts plan to maintain operational resilience all year round, but they put a particular focus on winter given the higher incidence of flu, norovirus, and respiratory conditions which all put services under significant extra pressure. Preparing for winter is about ensuring there is enough capacity, including beds and staff, to meet patients’ needs. This is often more difficult during winter than at other times in the year due to demand both in the clinical acuity of the patients and the capacity demands on resources within the trust. Trusts will therefore plan specific activities and contingencies to protect patient safety. However, resilience in one organisation very much depends on resilience in the rest of the system.
Winter pressures and planning is a key issue for the acute, mental health, community and ambulance service trusts that NHS Providers represents. We therefore carry out a range of activities on their behalf – for example, we have published several reports on winter planning and we regularly discuss the NHS’ state of preparedness each winter with the Department of Health and its arms length bodies. A number of our key resources are available below.