A bleak midwinter looms for the NHS as strikes, waiting lists and seasonal illness squeeze the service

By John Mercury December 13, 2023

Robert Carter describes himself as one of the “lucky ones”.

The 73-year-old retired taxi driver from Rugby went to see his doctor when he started passing blood in his urine. A CT scan found a cancerous tumour growing inside his kidney.

That was a little over three months ago. Today Robert is sitting up next to his bed in Ward 10 of University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire following surgery last week, waiting to be discharged.

“You do worry about the NHS now,” Robert says.

“Although they’ve always done me proud, but it is getting to the stage where for some people it is difficult and they’re having to wait for months and months and months for an appointment. I was one of the lucky ones.”

Robert has lost one of his kidneys to the disease but surgeons are confident they have removed all the cancer.

But the next few weeks could prove to be difficult for patients like Robert and doctors like Ed Hartley, one of the hospital’s most senior emergency consultants.

 Ed Harltey, senior emergency consultant
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Ed Hartley, senior emergency consultant

He is worried about the impact of forthcoming strike action.

“The next three weeks will be particularly challenging with the junior doctor strike, that has tested us several times over the past 12 months and our staff have stood up and risen to that challenge, but the next two or three weeks we see some unprecedented strike action that will put our hard working staff under even greater pressure.”

Junior doctors are due to take strike action from the 20th – 23rd December and from the 3rd to the 9th January 2024.

The six days in the new year will be the longest walkout in NHS history.

It means thousands of patients will see their elective operations cancelled over Christmas.

And, warns plastic surgeon Matthew Venus, when they do finally receive treatment many of these patients will be even sicker.

“When they do come for their surgery often their condition has worsened and that means that the surgery is more difficult and that complications are more likely, and so it sort of feeds itself really.”

Plastic surgeon Matthew Venus
Image:
Plastic surgeon Matthew Venus

The disruption couldn’t come at a worse time.

An increase in respiratory viruses and the struggle to discharge medically fit patients are putting the health system under strain.

Read more:
Norovirus: Winter vomiting bug cases far higher this year, warns NHS
Nurses’ union calls for pay negotiations to be reopened to anger of other health groups

The pressure on the NHS is not just seasonal, there is now huge financial pressure too.

Added to the cost of living crisis, the soaring price of energy and the extra money being spent on trying to address a record waiting list are the ten of millions of pounds hospitals must find to cover the junior doctor strikes.

Gaby Harris, Coventry Hospital’s chief operating officer, says the extra money must be found from existing budgets.

Gaby Harris, Coventry Hospital's chief operating officer
Image:
Gaby Harris, Coventry Hospital’s chief operating officer

“The cost of the strikes does come out of our revenue budget, our… the money that we have and we are cognisant of that, we have to make sure that we are as productive and as efficient as we can be to try and mitigate some of that.”

Robert will be at home with his grandchildren for Christmas. But he knows his outpatient care in the weeks ahead could still be disrupted.

You can watch the Sky News NHS debate tonight at 7pm on Sky News, at news.sky.com or on the Sky News app

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