NHS winter pressures: what to expect and how to protect our healthcare heroes

NHS winter pressures: what to expect and how to protect our healthcare heroes

Dec 14, 2020.

In any year, winter can be extremely challenging time for the NHS; but the winter of 2020/21 looks to be especially tough due to the continuing battle against Covid-19 and the virus’ vaccination programme rollout. Given that winter pressures traditionally contribute to one of the NHS’s busiest periods, what exactly can it expect over the coming months? And perhaps more importantly, how can we protect it? Find out in today’s blog post.

What’s the impact of winter on the NHS?

Studies reveal that moderately cold weather has a significant impact on people’s health. In the winter, when the temperature averages around 5-8 degrees Celsius, each 1 degree drop results in around 4% increase in death rates in England. Furthermore, with each 1 degree Celsius decrease, there will be an increase of 1% in hospital admissions; typically, seen in elderly with cardiovascular and respiratory-related illnesses. Not only that, but when the weather gets to freezing level with prominent ice and snow, it also increases the number of patients visiting hospitals for trip and slip-related injuries, such as bone breaks and fractures.

If the general winter pressures aren’t difficult enough, the NHS is still very much still in the process of fighting against Covid-19.

Covid-19 outbreaks increase the demand on primary care, ambulance and 111 services in addition to emergency admissions – especially for elderly and vulnerable people. If a patient’s condition worsens then this can obviously have a knock-on effect to other services such as acute care, intensive care units and intensive care units.

Those who require long-term stays also have a severe impact on how flexibly patients can use and stay in hospital beds. To demonstrate, in 2018, the average bed occupancy in England for January to March was 95% – reflecting the high level of pressure experienced across the NHS and this was prior to Covid 19. Making this winter a worrying one…

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So how can the NHS prepare for winter?


Upon the time of writing this, the Pfizer BioNTech Covid 19 vaccine has now been approved for use in the UK – being the first country in the world to use it for widespread use. The UK has ordered enough doses to vaccinate 20 million people – covering our healthcare heroes and extremely vulnerable in society.

With the vaccine being 95% effective, over time we expect to see a dramatic reduction in the spread of the virus, the number of deaths and the number of A&E attendances with directly-related health conditions. However, a successful rollout will require large staffing levels, resources and sophisticated distribution which will place increased pressure on the service in the interim.

Make use of the extra resources available

During the winter, not only does the UK’s public’s health deteriorate but so do those of our healthcare heroes. They’re exhausted from a tough year, they’re more likely to get ill and most importantly, they’re well overdue a timeout and some time off. But the UK’s healthcare system can’t simply stop?

So, what option is available? The answer: Increase the reliance on bank and locum healthcare providers.

The primary purpose of a locum or agency healthcare professional is for them to step in when times get tough – so, when an essential Consultant needs to take a couple weeks off this winter to rest and recharge the department can continue with all emergency and planned-care without needing to worry. This way, service demands are met whilst service providers’ health is prioritised.

Essential rest, recharge and recuperation

Moving on nicely to the importance of healthcare professionals’ health, for them to truly cope with the difficulties that come with winter pressures is for them to receive a sufficient amount of time to rest, recharge and recuperate. If healthcare professionals don’t come to work with the right energy and passion to care then patients will simply not receive high-quality, patient-centred care that they deserve. This will prevent healthcare professionals from feeling rundown, experiencing burnout and most importantly, from taking sick days.

The NHS is at the heart of the UK and 2020 has taught us to be nothing but eternally grateful to have access to one of the best healthcare systems in the world. That being said, it’s also a service that needs nurtured by the UK government, public and its own institutional processes.

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