Rishi Sunak is “confident” the NHS has the funding it needs despite the current chaos in the health service.
No 10 admitted that services were suffering an “unprecedented challenge” this winter and that some patients were finding it “very difficult” to access care.
But Downing Street said the government had been upfront with the public that this would be an extremely challenging few months for the NHS.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I think we are confident we are providing the NHS with the funding it needs – and as we did throughout the pandemic – to deal with these issues.
“I think we have been upfront with the public long in advance of this winter that because of the pandemic and the pressures it’s placed in the backlog of cases that this would be an extremely challenging winter, and that is what we are seeing.”
The hangover from Covid was among the largest causes of the current pressures on the NHS, he said, although he also pointed to delayed discharges from hospitals because of a lack of social care beds.
That was an issue the government had “recognised and have been seeking to address this year with additional funding into the system”.
Asked if the Prime Minister thought the NHS was in crisis, his spokesman said: “This is certainly an unprecedented challenge for the NHS brought about, as I say, by a number of factors.”
NHS leaders have urged the Government to reopen talks with unions over pay, saying the “last thing” the NHS needs is four days of strikes in January.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine warns that between 300 and 500 people a week are dying as a result of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care, although NHS England has said it does not recognise these numbers. In a joint statement, the president of the Society for Acute Medicine, Dr Tim Cooksley, and the president of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh, Professor Andrew Elder, said they had “ never been more concerned about standards of acute medical care across hospitals in the UK than we are now”.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned the current situation was “very difficult”, with Trusts declaring ‘critical incidents’.
“We are not able to provide the level of service we want to provide,” he said. “The simple reality here is that the health service is caught between the fact that it has limited capacity, particularly when it comes to workforce – 130,000 vacancies – and a level of demand that it is difficult to meet in ordinary times.”
He added: “It is really important that, as ministers return to their desks, they consider ways of reopening negotiations with the trade unions – because four days of strikes on top of the situation we’re in now is the last thing we need.”
Ambulance staff are set to walk out on January 11 and 23 in a dispute over pay, while nursing staff will strike for two consecutive days on January 18 and 19.
Mr Taylor also warned that over the longer term the NHS needed more money. Sally Warren, director of policy at the King’s Fund think tank, said tens of thousands of people are waiting for social care assessments, which has an impact on hospitals.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “while they’re waiting, their condition might deteriorate and they may end up in the NHS system, be that with their GP, with NHS 111, or at the hospital front door”.
Richard Webber, spokesman for the College of Paramedics, said hospitals are “full of patients who should be elsewhere”.