There is a “material risk” patients are dying unnecessarily because of long ambulance delays, the health secretary has admitted.
But Steve Barclay also signalled plans to scale back the number of NHS targets, seen as a key measure of NHS performance. And he faced accusations he was peddling “frankly pretty dishonest stuff” as he defended the government’s actions on the health service, from the leader of one of the country’s largest unions.
Pressed if people were dying because of ambulance delays on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, Mr Barclay conceded: “If there is a delay in an ambulance getting to someone in terms of unmet need, then obviously that is a material risk”.
He insisted ministers were improving the “flow” of patients, following stories of long waiting times and ambulances stuck for hours outside hospitals.
But the government has been criticised for an announcement this week that long-delayed social care reforms will be put off for another two years.
Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents managers of hospital trusts, told Sky News “almost every hospital” in England, Wales and Northern Ireland “has got wards full of people who could go home, who should go home”, but there was a lack of social care staff to look after them.
He said the health service has an issue “about how we recruit, how we retain and how we motivate our staff”.
As the row raged, health minister Will Quince said he was “to blame” for unnecessary deaths in the NHS.
‘Ultimately, I’m the minister, I am to blame. And it’s my responsibility. It’s my responsibility to fix this,” he told Times Radio.
“Anybody who dies prematurely or needlessly whilst waiting for an ambulance, I take incredibly seriously and my heart goes out to them, and indeed their families.”
Half of all NHS trusts are responsible for 90 per cent of the issues around discharge, he said.
Gary Smith, the general secretary of the GMB union, called Mr Barclay “deluded” over the need to fund the NHS and care services.
“Why didn’t they tax non-doms, why didn’t they tax the richest people in this country with the broadest shoulders who pay no tax at all, what have they done about bankers’ bonuses?” he asked.
“The Tory government has made ideological decisions for over a decade about cutting services and that’s what has left services on their knees and this is not hyperbole – our care homes were turned into morgues during the pandemic because of mismanagement and cuts.
“People are dying because of cuts to services so I find that interview utterly dishonest and frankly the minister is deluded.”
Last month, an interview with the health secretary was interrupted by a woman who accused him of “doing nothing” about ambulance waits.
The latest NHS figures show average waits of over an hour for heart attack and stroke victims last month. Documents published alongside this week’s autumn statement commit the NHS to improving some performance targets, including halving average ambulance wait times for those patients.