The NHS has done an amazing job, proving itself very agile, very productive and very flexible. It’s been a process of constant learning. Looking back, it feels a bit myopic that we focused on one thing – avoiding the NHS collapsing and ensuring that we had enough mechanical ventilation capacity. Now we know that mechanical ventilation doesn’t work with everyone.
We’ve had to get our heads around how we get people to access services. We’re encouraging people to come in, stressing that it’s safe and trying to build public confidence that way. Six weeks ago most patients were reluctant to come in for a diagnostic test. But most now do.
But there’s a very big backlog of people needing care, because we had this huge emptying out of hospitals and many NHS services were paused, notably elective surgery. If private hospitals can help the NHS get on top of the backlog, to agreed standards and with the NHS paying, let’s do that, as it’s wrong that patients have to wait too long to get treatment. The public won’t care who provides that care.
People often criticise the NHS because it’s a big beast. But the amount of change we achieved in the space of a few days in March shows how agile we can be. Some things won’t ever change back. My trust will be really different going forward. Before Covid-19 came along 10%-20% of our outpatient appointments were done digitally, by video or telephone consultation. But by April and May that was 70%. I don’t know if it will be 70% in the future, but it will be a high number. Everyone won’t be seen that way, of course. Some people will still need to be seen, for example if they have a lump.
The pandemic saw the NHS strengthen its bond with the public, through the Thursday night clap and all the offers of support. Now trusts can cement their already central place in local communities by creating jobs, for example. Here, we’re forming a partnership with a local firm that provides digital services: that will boost our local economy. The NHS can use its spending power to source supplies locally rather than from abroad, such as testing products, personal protective equipment and data services. Doing that should be our first instinct.
But while the NHS needs to remain agile and keep looking at how it delivers care, so too it needs to be more resilient to withstand shocks like a pandemic. We were all worried pre-coronavirus about how the NHS was struggling at peak times, like over winter. So we need more capacity, more resources – more headroom. That means more of everything: people, kit, buildings and another 10,000-15,000 beds on top of the 100,000-110,000 we’ve got now. That’s got to be one of the key outcomes for the future.
There’s a binary perception that either the NHS needs more money and beds or it needs to transform itself. Going forward and learning from Covid-19 it needs both.