UK Covid live: plans to tackle 5.8m NHS backlog in doubt as Omicron cases rise, say MPs

LIVE – Updated at 10:10

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A temporary field hospital is pictured set up in the grounds of St George’s hospital in south London.

Latest updates: MPs’ report warns over staffing crisis as Covid threatens to overwhelm health service.

Plans to tackle 5.8m NHS waiting list backlog in doubt as Omicron cases rise, say MPs

Good morning. One of the biggest issues worrying government at the moment is what is happening in the NHS. It is often presented as a simple question, will or will not the NHS be “overwhelmed”? (a binary framing for which the government itself is largely responsible, because it made this a key criterion for Covid alert levels), but, as we found out on Tuesday, Boris Johnson cannot define what the NHS being “overwhelmed” means, and that’s because there is no yes-or-no answer. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, made this point well in the course a long thread he posted on Twitter last night.

The Hopson thread, which is well worth reading in full, starts here.

But people will make a judgment about how well the NHS is doing, and whether the government is running it well, regardless of whether or not some notional tipping point has been reached, and a report (pdf) out this morning from the Conservative-dominated Commons health committee should make sobering reading for ministers. Its title is “Clearing the backlog caused by the pandemic”, and its key message is that this may prove impossible. It says that, partly because of Omicron, and partly because of long-term staffing problems (a particular obsession of Jeremy Hunt’s), the government’s plans to tackle the backlog are in jeopardy.

This is from Hunt, the former Tory health secretary and committee chair, summing up his committee’s findings.

The NHS faces an unquantifiable challenge in tackling a backlog of cases caused by the pandemic, with 5.8m patients waiting for planned care and estimates that the figure could double by 2025.

However, our report finds that the government’s recovery plans risk being thrown off course by an entirely predictable staffing crisis. The current wave of Omicron is exacerbating the problem, but we already had a serious staffing crisis, with a burnt-out workforce, 93,000 NHS vacancies and no sign of any plan to address this.

Far from tackling the backlog, the NHS will be able to deliver little more than day to day firefighting unless the government wakes up to the scale of the staffing crisis facing the NHS, and urgently develops a long-term plan to fix the issue.

I will be focusing a lot more on Covid and the NHS today.

And the other main worry for Johnson, of course, is the cost of living crisis. Overnight it was reported that Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, wanted the planned national insurance increase to be shelved. We will be hearing from Rees-Mogg himself in the Commons later.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am: The ONS publishes its latest data on long Covid.

10.10am: George Eustice, the environment secretary, gives a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference.

10.30am: Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, takes questions in the Commons on next week’s business.

11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.

Around 11.30am: Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, makes a statement in the Commons about Russia.

Around 12.30pm: Victoria Atkins, the Home Office minister, makes a statement to MPs about the Afghan resettlement scheme.

2pm: The UK Health Security Agency publishes its weekly Covid surveillance report.

I will covering UK Covid developments in this blog today, but for wider coronavirus coverage, do read our global live blog.

Related: Covid live news: French parliament approves ‘vaccine pass’ law; Italy to mandate vaccines for over 50s

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24 hospital trusts have now declared critical incidents, Shapps says

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, was on interview duty for the governement this morning. He said 24 hospital trusts have now declared critical incidents. He told Sky News:

There are 137 trusts, there are 24 which are critical, it’s not entirely unusual for hospitals to go critical over the winter with things like the flu pandemic. But there are very real pressures which I absolutely recognise.


Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative chair of the Commons health committee, has been talking about his committee’s report (see 9.40am) in interviews this morning. He told LBC that major staffing shortages across the NHS were not due to money but “finding the staff to spend the money on”. He explained:

Right now, across the NHS, if you ask the people running hospitals, they will not say money is the big issue, it’s finding the staff to spend the money on. We have not just the Omicron staff absence issue but we have permanent staffing shortfalls in every major specialty now across the NHS.

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