The next government will inherit a health service that has run out of money as waiting times for patients get worse, a leading think-tank warns today.
In a report, the King’s Fund said the coalition government will leave office with health services under “significant strain” and a “real risk” that patient care will suffer as the NHS heads towards a deficit,
It highlights particular concerns about missing of key waiting-time targets for A&E, hospital treatment and cancer treatment, increased hospital bed occupancy and delayed discharges of patients and low morale among staff.
Although it pointed out that the number of hospital-acquired infections have substantially fallen over the past five years, “dangerously high” levels of bed occupancy - meaning staff sometimes do not have time to properly clean them between patients - could lead to a rise.
The charity said hospitals and other providers of care have overspent their budgets by more than £800 million and the NHS is likely to record a “substantial deficit” for the first time since 2005-6.
King’s Fund’s chief economist John Appleby said: “The next government will inherit a health service that has run out of money and is operating at the very edge of its limits.
“While the NHS has performed well in the face of huge challenges, there is now a real risk that patient care will deteriorate as service and financial pressures become overwhelming.”
The report said while the NHS has made some progress in improving efficiency, additional funding of £8 billion a year by 2020 is the absolute minimum it requires to continue to meet patient needs and maintain standards of care.
King’s Fund chief executive Chris Ham said although the reforms brought in by the coalition “wasted” its first three years in power, it was clear there has been an increased understanding of how quality of care can be compromised by not having enough staff in the latter half of its tenure, in the light of hospital scandals seen at Mid Staffs and Morecambe Bay.
British Medical Association chairman Mark Porter said: “Staff have done as much as they can to protect and improve patient care but, as this report lays bare, after years of underfunding the cracks are beginning to show.
“The NHS is the best healthcare system in the world and the most efficient - there is no fat left to cut without patient care being hit.”
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: “Thursday 7th May is shaping up to be David Cameron’s day of reckoning on the NHS.
“In 2010, Cameron said he would cut the deficit, not the NHS. What this report reveals is that he is on course to create a large deficit in the NHS.
“What is clear is that the fragile NHS we now have can’t take five more years like the five it has just had. It can’t afford the Tories’ plan for deeper care cuts in the next parliament.
“It urgently needs new leadership and a change of course.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “We welcome this report’s acknowledgement that we have increased the NHS budget in real terms, recruited many more clinical staff and are treating more patients than ever, just as public satisfaction with the NHS improves.
“As the King’s Fund says, the NHS has ‘performed well in the face of huge challenges’, but if we are to continue to invest in the NHS going forward it needs to be backed by a strong economy.”