The NHS faces the challenge of its lifetime

Chris Hopson profile picture

22 March 2020

Chris Hopson
Chief Executive
NHS Providers


The NHS is about to be tested as never before. Its response in the coming days and weeks to the challenge of COVID-19 will have a profound impact not only on the lives of patients and staff, but in shaping our national story for years to come. The government has invoked war-time rhetoric to rally public support to contain and delay the disease. In this way, the fight against coronavirus has also become a societal fight for the NHS, to buy time to strengthen its armoury. We are fast approaching the moment of reckoning.

At NHS Providers we have had a unique insight into the preparations taking place on the NHS frontline, and into the unfolding pressures. As the membership organisation for all trusts in England, including hospitals, mental health, community and ambulance services, we have been able to channel local concerns direct to the national NHS leaders responsible for co-ordinating this unprecedented effort. And we have seen at close quarter, and in real time, how that response is taking shape.

So what are those concerns? First, it is an absolute priority to ensure that NHS staff are protected properly against infection. The need for equipment such as masks, visors and gowns has increased dramatically. We know the overall supply is in place. Preparations for Brexit and the stockpile set aside for a flu pandemic mean we can meet national demand. But the requirement to quickly and massively expand distribution to match spiralling demand for this equipment means that there have been local shortages, understandably fuelling anxiety over staff and patient safety.

 

The NHS is about to be tested as never before. Its response in the coming days and weeks to the challenge of COVID-19 will have a profound impact not only on the lives of patients and staff, but in shaping our national story for years to come.

Chris Hopson    Chief Executive

 

 

This weekend we are seeing a further concerted push to secure deliveries where they are needed most. The complicated task of ensuring supplies, not just to hospitals but across the full range of provider services, is never 'done'. But one of the benefits of having a truly ‘national’ health service means we are able to approach problems like this with a rapid, co-ordinated, response and that is what we are seeing.

Another key concern is testing. The World Health Organisation wants us to “test, test, test” to beat the virus. The NHS is rapidly scaling up testing capacity from 1,500 to 25,000 tests a day. We are seeing pathology staff redeployed and laboratory space re-purposed to support this effort. But the focus, for now, is on testing patients rather than NHS staff. So when those staff - or people they live with – have suspected coronavirus symptoms, they are rightly going into isolation.

That’s causing disruption and frustration as the NHS workforce is depleted at this crucial time. The quicker testing capacity is increased the larger the number of staff, as well as patients, can be tested. The promised deployment of a simple antibody test, which is now being trialled, will help, though this will inevitably take time to consistently reach the NHS frontline.

 

The NHS is rapidly scaling up testing capacity from 1,500 to 25,000 tests a day. We are seeing pathology staff redeployed and laboratory space re-purposed to support this effort.

Chris Hopson    Chief Executive

Our real time dialogue with frontline leaders reveals a huge range of challenges beyond well-known priorities such as ventilators and critical care capacity. They are worried about hand gel supplies, staff access to childcare and shopping for shift workers. There is also a real appetite to share ideas and information, and for lessons to be learned for the post pandemic NHS. What’s particularly heartening is the reports from trust leaders of how many local businesses are bending over backwards to offer support. Nurses with family members in isolation are being accommodated in local hotels so they can carry on working and local supermarkets are offering protected shopping time for NHS workers.

The new government came into power 101 days ago promising to put the health service at the centre of its priorities. No one then could have predicted how the NHS would be put to the test as we are seeing now. And no one can say with certainty how the next few months will play out. The workforce is being strengthened, additional beds and ventilator capacity brought in, hospitals reconfigured and key supplies secured for the battle ahead. Only time will tell whether this is enough, but it is heartening to see one NHS pulling together at local and national level with impressive resolve and resourcefulness, alongside the commitment and compassion from staff we have long come to expect, but will never take for granted.

 

About the author

Chris Hopson profile picture

Chris Hopson
Chief Executive
@ChrisCEOHopson

Chris Hopson is the chief executive of NHS Providers. He joined in September 2012 after a career in politics, commercial television and the civil service. Read more

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