NEWS

It is official: there is no longer a winter crisis in the NHS. Now it happens all year round.

The Department of Health will not be holding a winter planning conference, nor will it be issuing a winter planning circular. Instead, ministers want the winter planning measures adopted in the past to continue throughout the year.

Hazel Blears, the new junior health minister, steered clear of saying the NHS was in constant crisis. But she said there were other 'seasonal' pressures and things like the fuel crisis and the foot-and-mouth outbreak that added to the pressure on the NHS.

Speaking at a DoH conference last week in London, she said: 'We need to be thinking in a wider context than planning for winter. '

One of the first things health secretary Alan Milburn had told her was that 'winter begins in July and ends in June', she said.

'We need to think about how we plan care of all types - health and social care, emergency and elective - all year round. '

The NHS Confederation has welcomed the shift of emphasis away from just winter pressures.

It had previously called on the government to recognise that the pressures exist all year.

And, in her first speech as minister, Ms Blears hinted at further use of the private sector in order to 'maximise capacity' to meet peaks in demand.

'The concordat with the Independent Healthcare Association, which was agreed in October 2000, provided a basis for making use of capacity in the private sector to meet peaks in demand in the NHS, ' she said.

'I think we have a good way further to go in fully exploiting the potential of this relationship for the benefit of patients. '

A spokesperson for the IHA said it had the capacity to perform 200,000 operations for the NHS every year. In the first three months alone of this year, it performed 25,000 such operations.

Ms Blears also announced extra funding to improve ambulance response times -£3. 4m is to be invested in satellite navigation systems which allow vehicles to pinpoint addresses.

'We are all aware of the sometimes tragic cases where emergency care has been delayed because the ambulance crew were unable to locate the address of the patient, ' she said. 'The government will make resources available for ambulance services to equip all of their frontline vehicles with in-cab mapping systems. '

Only three of the 32 ambulance services in England met government response-time targets in 2000-01. Staffordshire, Lancashire and Mersey trusts alone managed to respond immediately to 75 per cent of life-threatening calls within eight minutes, according to latest statistics from the DoH.