Preparing for NHS Winter Pressures

Dec 9, 2022.

Health and social care services are once again preparing for winter pressures and extra demand on GPs and Emergency Departments as temperatures drop and the flu season kicks in; intensified by the continuing impact of Covid-19. Add in the pressure of continuously rising patient wait lists across all aspects of elective care and it is very clear that preparing is more critical than ever before when it comes to providing safe, effective and sustainable care for the people who need it.

Our latest blog explores how hospitals, GP practice, social services, community health services, ambulance services, mental health services, and the voluntary sector, can prepare – and are preparing – for winter  pressures, and why it makes a difference; to both Healthcare Professionals and patients they care for.

‘Winter Pressures’ Plans from NHS England

NHS England recently announced plans to prepare the health service for what NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard has said will be ‘a very challenging winter’, with interim chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery elaborating in further detail:  

“Trusts are working incredibly hard ahead of what is expected to be a very difficult winter. They have been at the forefront of efforts to expand capacity through creating more beds, virtual wards, investment in mental health pathways and ramping up the number of 111 and 999 call handlers.” (Please click here for the more information and the full quote).  

Saffron went on to detail new measures announced, including:

Steps to respond to falls, which will help ease some of the pressure on urgent and emergency care services at a time when the entire system is under strain

That the ambulance service, community providers and acute trusts are increasingly working together to ensure more patients, including those who fall at home or in care, get the right treatment, in the right place, by the right health and care professional

The creation of new ‘control rooms’, with collaboration by local health and care partners to tackle the multiple challenges which arise over the tricky winter months, alongside respiratory hubs which could help manage any surges arising from a potential ‘twindemic’ of flu and COVID-19

In a letter to every local health service in the country, NHS chiefs also said they will roll out 24/7 access to professional mental health advice in ambulances services over winter which will give more people the opportunity to get the right support in their community.

Vaccinations – the first step is prevention

Bookings for Covid-19 autumn booster and flu vaccinations has never been easier, thanks to the ability to book an appointment online under a new pilot scheme with more than 200 sites across the country as well as booking via GP surgeries or at pharmacies. More than 7 million people have already had their Covid-19 autumn booster in just over a month (September – October 2022) following a bumper first week in October that saw nearly 2 million jabs being delivered to people aged 65 and over and those most at risk from Covid (from 19 September up to and including 20 November 2022, more than 2.7 million repeat vaccinations against COVID-19 were administered).

With regards to the flu vaccine, millions of jabs are being rolled out, with the public being invited to book. 

With regards to the flu vaccine, millions of jabs are being rolled out, with the public being invited to book. 

NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said:

“Thanks to the incredible work of our frontline staff across the country, our Covid autumn vaccination programme continues to go from strength to strength… we have invited twice as many people as we did last autumn and we have jabbed twice as many people as we did last autumn.”

Such extensive planning for the Autumn Covid-19 booster programme and the annual flu campaign is already helping when it comes to upcoming winter pressures, getting those most at risk vaccinated and protected as the colder months set in.

How practices can cope with winter pressures

Winter pressures can put a huge strain on healthcare practices, especially if there is a serious outbreak of flu, but there are steps practices can take to help manage access and demand:

Sharper appointment system

Being able to identify the most urgent patients whilst reducing non-urgent appointments can have a significant impact on pressures during winter-time and ways to apply this can include:

• Temporary hold on activities such as meetings, teaching, etc. to reduce time spent on outside activities

• Plan in more email or telephone appointments

• Temporary suspension of new routine referrals

• Managing acute and urgent flu presentations via a triage system

• Increase medication requests to 90 days where safe to do so

• Temporary suspension of minor surgeries and coil fittings

To help apply and deal with a sharper appointment system, practices could run a session with their reception team on how to deal with non-urgent queries, including developing a script that they can refer to, explaining that due to their services being under extreme pressure, non-urgent queries are being re-directed. It is also important that staff are able to give details to patients on ways they can still have access to a Healthcare Professional, such as receiving a call or email from the practice.

Infection control

Minimising the spread of infection is always crucial, especially during a serious flu outbreak. Steps to prepare can include:

• Separate waiting area for possible flu patients (with this area/room being cleaned more frequently)

• Assigning a Doctor and a few staff members to managing just flu patients (who will also have the appropriate PPE – personal protective equipment)

• Ensuring you have enough stock of PPE

Increase vaccination rates

Increasing vaccination rates in both adults and children can help manage potential virus outbreaks:

• Look at how practices can increase flu vaccination uptake (adding in extra clinics / messaging patients, encouraging them to book in, etc.)

• Encouraging staff to be vigilant regarding patients’ eligibility

• Adding a message to a practice’s telephone call waiting system that invites eligible patients to book a flu appointment

How hospitals can cope with winter pressures

Planning ahead, and thinking about the different ways to tackle issues that can arise from winter pressures can really help hospitals cope:

Staff shortages

Staff shortages is an ongoing issue, but with the onset on the cold weather and the risk of infections rising and staff calling in sick, it can be worse than ever during the winter months. Prepare by filling extra/winter vacancies in the areas you need the most. Talk to a healthcare recruitment provider such as ID Medical (we provide Healthcare Professionals across the entire healthcare spectrum) about your recruitment needs.

Flu Vaccination Programme

Running an efficient flu vaccination programme, including vaccinating staff and encouraging people to take the jab can make a huge difference to the number of hospital admissions, A&E visits and emergency calls due to flu.

Triage Control

Freeing up beds and minimising capacity can really help ease the strain of winter pressures. This can include:

• Prompt discharge of patients once seen, diagnosed and treated

• Ensuring NHS 111 is used efficiently and effectively by call handlers – passing through only those who really need to be seen within A&E / by Paramedics / EMTs

• Maximising the use of Paramedics and EMTs who can diagnose and advise, thus avoiding unnecessary need for a visit to A&E (where appropriate and safe to do so)

We hope that our latest blog has been useful and, if you’re Healthcare Professional interested in looking for a longer term role over the winter months, please do get in touch. We have access to the widest range of roles and the best available rates across the entire UK, which means that now is a great time to explore your options and find an opportunity closer to home!