Ministers, health leaders and clinical experts will meet in Downing Street today in an attempt to solve the short and long-term issues facing the health service.
Rishi Sunak will host the NHS recovery forum in Number 10 as the winter crisis rolls on, with discussions focusing on social care and delayed discharge, urgent and emergency care, elective care, and primary care.
The prime minister’s spokesman said the aim was to “share knowledge and practical solutions so that we can tackle the most crucial challenges” in both health and social care.
But the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor, said the meeting would not be able to fix the crisis that “has been a decade or more in the making”, adding: “The reality is that there are no silver bullets here.”
The meeting comes amid warnings from senior doctors of the “intolerable and unbearable” state of the NHS this winter, with ambulances queuing for hours outside hospitals, several trusts announcing critical incidents, and rising cases of flu and COVID impacting the service.
It also comes as the government remains at loggerheads with nursing and ambulance unions over pay and working conditions, with both professions set to take further strike action later this month.
Junior doctors could join them on the pickets in March if a ballot is approved by union members.
The chief of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Pat Cullen, said on Thursday that she would be willing to “meet the government halfway” over its pay demands, with Sky News understanding an increase of 10% could be accepted by her members.
But, while the government has invited unions for further talks next week and health secretary Steve Barclay has said he is “keen to have a dialogue”, ministers are sticking to their position of following recommendations from the independent pay review body of a rise nearer to 4%.
Saturday’s forum will run for the majority of the day, with attendees including chief executives and clinical leaders from NHS organisations, local areas and councils from across the country, clinical experts from Royal Colleges and independent sector organisations working with health and social care services.
Mr Barclay will also attend, alongside Treasury minister John Glen, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden, and the chief executive Officer of NHS England, Amanda Pritchard.
But the RCN has not been invited.
Pointing to Mr Sunak’s first big speech of the year, where he listed the NHS as one of his priorities in office, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “As the prime minister made clear this week, easing the immediate pressures whilst also focusing on the long-term improvement of the NHS is one of his key promises.
“That’s why we’re bringing together the best minds from the health and care sectors to help share knowledge and practical solutions so that we can tackle the most crucial challenges such as delayed discharge and emergency care.
“We want to correct the unwarranted variation in NHS performance between local areas, because no matter where you live you should be able to access quality healthcare.”
But Labour said patients “deserve more than a talking shop”.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “After 13 years of mismanaging the NHS, this is the equivalent of the arsonists convening a forum with the fire brigade to put out the inferno they started.
“Clinical leaders and health experts have been sounding the alarm for months about the crisis the NHS is facing, so why has it taken so long for Rishi Sunak and Steve Barclay to decide to listen to them?
“After five Conservative prime ministers and seven health secretaries, it’s clear that the longer the Conservatives are in power, the longer patients will wait.”
The Liberal Democrats also called the forum “too little, too late”, with deputy leader Daisy Cooper saying: “Sunak needs to stop operating at a snail’s pace, and start acting with the speed and urgency this unprecedented NHS crisis deserves.”