The chief medical officer’s call for a plan to reduce the number of deaths in winter was welcomed by the health service but the responses from different parts of the sector smacked of buck passing.
Acute trusts said primary care trusts must take the lead so hospitals are not at the receiving end of high demand for services, while PCTs were quick to point out that GPs, local authorities and voluntary agencies would need to pull their weight for such a strategy to stand any chance of success.
The NHS euphemism “winter pressures” is a catch-all phrase for a complex and colliding set of causes and effects
The need to tackle the issue is undeniable. The NHS has a heatwave plan, but no “coldwave” equivalent. Sir Liam Donaldson didn’t pull his punches in his final report as CMO. “Winter kills”, he said, with mortality in England rising 18 per cent during the season, an increase far above much colder countries, and 8,000 additional winter deaths for every 1C drop in temperature.
Of course it won’t be easy: the NHS euphemism “winter pressures” is a catch-all phrase for a complex and colliding set of causes and effects that hits the health service annually without fail. But tackling it - across all sectors - will bring benefits not only in terms of public health, but for managers and frontline staff who would no doubt welcome a more preventive and efficient approach that minimised overload to the system as a whole, and to their own stress levels.
There is no reason why it cannot be done. The response to the swine flu outbreak was a fantastic example of the NHS largely pulling together to tackle a potentially significant challenge - from coordination of public health messages and sharing of best practice, to vaccination and mobilisation of intensive care resources where needed.
Of course, the pandemic flu preparation had Sir Liam’s name on it too - he’s got previous when it comes to pre-emptive plans, as well as to pushing through then-controversial policies such as the smoking ban.
This time, he won’t be around to take charge - it is for managers to pick up the baton. But if they don’t, it is just possible that Sir Liam, in his new role as chair of the National Patient Safety Agency, will still find ways to bang heads together if necessary.