• Simon Stevens says NHS has six to eight weeks to prepare for winter
  • NHS England chief warns the flu outbreak in Australia and New Zealand could cause pressure here
  • System is working to reduce delayed discharges to free up 2,000-3,000 beds for winter
  • Warning comes after NHS Improvement figures revealed extra investment in social care had failed to reduce DTOCs

Freeing up delayed transfer of care beds will be vital to ensuring the NHS has enough capacity to manage winter pressures and a possible flu outbreak, Simon Stevens has warned.

Mr Stevens said at the Health and Care Innovation Expo today that the priority for the next three to five months was to ensure the NHS was as strong as possible to deal with winter.


Simon Stevens warned of the pressure a flu outbreak could put on the NHS

NHS England’s chief executive said the signs from Australia and New Zealand were a “heavy flu season”, which saw hospitals in those countries “struggling to cope”.

He added: “We know there’s a great deal of work to be done over the next six to eight weeks with our partners and local authorities as well, to put the NHS on the right footing for the winter ahead.”

Mr Stevens said the NHS will have more beds available but there will still be huge pressures.

HSJ understands this refers to the 2,000-3,000 beds expected to be freed up if local authorities hit their delayed transfer of care targets this year. But councils have written to health secretary Jeremy Hunt to say the targets – in some cases to reduce DTOCs by 50 per cent or more – are “undeliverable”.

Speaking to reporters after his speech, Mr Stevens said national accident and emergency director Pauline Philip has been reviewing each part of the country to ensure these beds are available for winter.

He said: “But in some parts of the country, clearly there are real pressures, so we are using the next six to eight weeks to really be clear what the plan there needs to be.

“Part of this is ensuring that we see further improvement in delayed discharges before November and the plan to free up 2,000 to 3,000 beds relies on significant improvement in that area.”

Matthew Swindells, NHS England’s director of operations and information, echoed concerns about winter in his conference speech.

The NHS should have been able to hit the A&E four hour target in July and a failure to make enough improvements, particularly around hospital flow, would have a knock-on effect, he said.

A severe flu season, if it eventuated, would only increase the need for extra capacity, he said.

“We have to take that opportunity to make that shift now before we get into winter because when the pressure of winter comes, if we haven’t done the work now, we won’t be able to maintain the sort of quality of service that we want across the winter.”

Earlier this month, NHS Improvement chief executive Jim Mackey warned urgent action was needed to ensure enough hospital beds are available over winter. He said the government’s extra investment in social care failed to reduce the number of delayed discharges.

In its quarterly performance report for providers, NHSI said the level of delayed discharges has increased since March, despite an extra £1bn being given to social care services.

HSJ has also reported system leaders are locked in a standoff over winter resilience funding – with providers pushing for a raid on NHS England’s budget to fund additional beds.

Australia and New Zealand have been hit by what some experts have called its worst ever flu season this year. Mr Stevens said: “We are reviewing the Australia and New Zealand experience, where hospitals have closed to new patients and reported very long waiting times.”

After his speech, Mr Stevens said if the H3 flu strain replicates itself in the UK it will put more pressure on the NHS.

He said: “The signs from the southern hemisphere winter have been that flu has been much higher and it has been the variety that puts the most pressure on the older people’s services like care homes.

“The World Health Organisation is reviewing the vaccines and if that reproduces itself here over this coming winter that is going to mean much more pressure on GP services and hospitals.”

Mr Stevens said the WHO will identify the best vaccine mix and that will be the one used by Public Health England.

Simon Stevens: Cut DTOCs to prepare for possible flu outbreak