Winter Watch: The Impact

NHS Providers media relations manager Nicole Moore reflects on this year's winter period in the NHS, and takes a look back at the contributions to our Winter Watch campaign 2021/22.

Each March we look back on the winter period in the NHS where they face higher demand due to seasonal pressures. Last winter we reflected on how COVID-19 took front and centre stage, and heard from many trusts and stakeholders about how digital innovation had been catapulted as a result of the pandemic. Many trusts also showcased how they supported their staff as they worked tirelessly to treat COVID-19 and non COVID patients and to roll out the vaccination campaign.

One year on for the NHS, and once again there is so much to reflect on. At NHS Providers, we spent the past few months tracking, analysing, and commenting on the weekly winter sit-rep data, published by NHS England and NHS Improvement, in our annual NHS Winter Watch campaign. It contained podcasts and blogs to highlight the incredible work taking place on the ground and giving context to national performance statistics. Our analysis team guided us through the performance figures and for the first time this year, we periodically published tweet threads on the data.

Throughout the campaign this year, we heard from trusts demonstrating how they are supporting their staff's tremendous efforts to care for COVID-19 and non COVID patients, as well as tackling the growing NHS backlog of care – including in mental health and community services.

Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation Trust chief operating officer, Adam Bateman, described his organisation's response to addressing a surge in children and young people from Merseyside and Cheshire requiring urgent and emergency care, the pathway of which has been under considerable strain nationally. At the trust, this included senior clinicians delivering a primary care streaming service (known colloquially as 'doctor in a box') and daily rapid assessment and treatment. To address unprecedented demand the trust also launched a digital symptom checker for children – an online platform supporting parents, carers and young people with advice to support self-care where appropriate and signposting to the right service.

Delayed discharges have also been a key national issue this year, indicating real pressure across the health and care system. Sir Jim Mackey, chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, outlined why and how his trust had become a direct provider of home care services in North Tyneside and Northumberland, creating up to 250 jobs in the process. Through its new service, the trust hopes to ensure that more people in need of home care can be allocated the support they need.

And while the numbers of patients in hospital with COVID-19 continues to be a real concern, and has slowed down the speed in which trusts can recover backlogs, trusts have been underway in addressing elective waiting lists. Thangadorai Amalesh, divisional director for surgery at Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, shared some of the innovative ways the trust is doing this after the initial peaks of the pandemic. This included creating a COVID-secure green zone, 'Bones weeks', and 'prEYEority week'.

Daren Mochrie, chair of the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives and chief executive of North West Ambulance Service NHS Trust, described a new campaign the organisation has underway to ensure that ambulance staff can go to work without fear of violence or aggression. It aims to raise awareness of the impact of this behaviour on individuals, emphasising that it is totally unacceptable in any form and the importance of staff being treated with the respect they deserve.

We also heard from colleagues in partner organisations, such as British Red Cross that demonstrated the positive impact that partner organisations can have when they team up with the NHS. Victoria Corbishley, head of health and local crisis response at British Red Cross, discussed the organisation's high intensity use (HIU) teams which work with A&Es to help prevent patients from needing to revisit busy emergency departments.

Sharon Brennan, health policy manager at Alzheimer's Society, talked about how the charity provided dedicated support to individuals and worked with the NHS to ensure provision is made for people with dementia, preventing added strain to hospitals. More widely, she discussed why the voluntary community and social enterprise sector should be embedded into integrated care partnerships, and the further work that is needed to implement national NHS guidance.

Our commercial partner Locum's Nest's co-founder and NHS Innovation Accelerator fellow, Dr Ahmed Shahrabani, described his organisation's bespoke response to help tackle the care backlog at North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust by helping fill gaps in workforce rotas, as trusts continue to feel the impact of staff shortages.

In addition, Care Quality Commission's outgoing chief inspector of hospitals, Professor Ted Baker, outlined the organisation's approach to regulation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it is supporting services by postponing inspections during this challenging period for the NHS in the winter months.

What I took away from the campaign this year was that while the NHS was the busiest it had ever been, and was facing many pressures and constraints, staff were continuing to do everything they could to look after their patients. They continued to adapt and change, to adopt new technology and embrace new working practices.

Amid the pressures the NHS is facing, it's easy to forget to celebrate the incredible work being undertaken by real people on the frontline and in stakeholder organisations to deliver care to patients. Our latest campaign shows that as ever, this and every winter, NHS staff will keep giving their very best to ensure their patients have the best support and care, despite the many and enormous challenges they face.