The NHS is treating fewer patients than it was pre-pandemic despite more funding and staff – suggesting a long-term Covid impact on the health service’s performance, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said.
The NHS carried out 14% fewer emergency admissions, 14% fewer outpatient appointments and 11% fewer elective and maternity admissions in the latest month of data than it did in the same period in 2019, according to the IFS.
The widely-respected think tank said a partial explanation could be that although the total number of NHS hospital beds is at pre-pandemic levels, the number of beds available for non-Covid patients in the third quarter of this year was still lower than before the pandemic.
With almost 3,000 patients in hospital mainly due to Covid-19 on an average day, there were 1% fewer beds available for other purposes.
The NHS is also struggling to discharge patients, with data suggesting that around 40% of people in hospital for more than 21 days were ready for discharge in the first week of December.
There are “worrying signs” that Covid has dealt a lasting adverse hit to the performance of the health service, according to new IFS analysis on funding, resources and treatment volumes.
It also found that the extra money allocated to the NHS in the Government’s recent autumn statement is enough to offset only around half of the real-terms hit from higher inflation.
Spending is set to rise only 2.9% per year over the five years, failing to match the original intention of increasing the NHS budget by 3.4% per year in real-terms.
Max Warner, research economist at the IFS, said: “The NHS is showing clear signs of strain heading into the winter, and is treating fewer patients than it was pre-pandemic across many types of care.
“The real risk, almost three years on from the start of the pandemic, is that the Covid hit to NHS performance is not time-limited.
“Going forward, we need to grapple with the possibility that the health service is just able to treat fewer patients with the same level of resources.”
An NHS England spokesperson said: “As the IFS itself acknowledges, the NHS has fewer beds since before the pandemic once you account for Covid-19 – yet is continuing to manage record demand for services with unprecedented pressure on ambulances and A&E alongside the ongoing impact of flu and Covid as well as challenges discharging those who are medically fit from hospital.
“Despite all of this, NHS staff continue to make progress on the most ambitious catch-up programme in its history, having already virtually eliminated two year waits for care, elective waiting lists for patients waiting over 18 months continuing to reduce in October, and tens of thousands more people getting the diagnostic tests and checks they needed.”
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