Winter 2022: Will the NHS Cope?

The winter is a tough season for many to weather, even at the best of times. Despite the festive cheer brought about by the holidays that dominate the final months of the year, it is a dark time for citizens in the UK.

Encroaching long nights, coupled with sharp drops in temperature, go some way to explaining the phenomenon of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD – to say nothing of the physical difficulties cold weather presents regarding arthritis, blood pressure and slip risk.

But this year has been a uniquely difficult one for the country, as sky-high energy bills fuel an ever-rising rate of inflation – while attempts to moderate inflation have caused mortgage rates to skyrocket themselves. All of this, coupled with systemic underfunding of crucial health services, has contributed to an environment in which winter could bring about worsening health, and negligent standards of care that could impact recovery. How did we get here?

overworked doctors in the NHS
The NHS is at risk of being overwhelmed

An Ailing Health Service

The NHS is a bastion of equitable care in the modern world. Its ‘free-at-the-point-of-use’ model has been a lifesaving one for millions upon millions across class lines in its 74-year history. But in recent years, the NHS has experienced difficulties in its operation. The leading cause of these difficulties has been the stagnation of government funding, as a failure to properly expand NHS budgets has been realised as a real-terms funding cut.

This has been exacerbated by a system of management and governance that has frustrated attempts to streamline care. Management and infrastructure alike were tested to their limits during the coronavirus pandemic, which decimated the number of wards and ambulances available to regular patients.

Winter and Fresh Difficulty

This winter, then, could be the winter that stretches the NHS to breaking point. Bed and ambulance shortages are still rife, with some reporting waits of up to 12 hours for an ambulance. The elderly are most at risk, as the cost-of-living crisis has many on state pensions choosing whether to heat or eat – leading, inevitably, to cold-related illness and injury in what should be warm and comfortable homes.

NHS and Government Plans for Winter

But these fresh difficulties are not going unanswered. While sweeping reforms and generous funding are necessary to forge a longer-term recovery plan for the ailing health service, short-term measures are being instituted to lessen the load on both practitioners and patients.

For one, the NHS is instituting a Winter Resilience Plan to re-focus efforts on a variety of community and institutional issues, from fall response to respiratory infection hubs. Meanwhile, the government has set out its own vision for change in health and social care, with fresh funding for social care to lighten the load on hospital wards. Whether it will be enough to weather another winter of discontent remains to be seen.