Alongside measures to reduce demand and admissions, such as the vaccine roll-out and new therapeutics for covid, the NHS is creating the maximum possible capacity and investing in improved discharge arrangements, the use of independent sector beds, virtual wards and Nightingales to provide surge capacity, alongside our investment in delivering more than 20,000 more clinical staff this year compared with August 2020.
I thank the Minister for that answer. As he knows, one of the main challenges facing hospitals is delays in the transfer of patients back to care homes due to historic restrictions, particularly where there has been an outbreak, although there may have been only one case. As we move to treating covid as more of an endemic condition, what steps can be taken to stop restricting admissions to these care homes, which would undoubtedly relieve pressure on hospitals?
There is local flexibility to allow residents to be safely admitted to a care home during outbreak restrictions, following a risk-based approach that takes into account the size of outbreaks, who is affected, care home size and layout, rates of booster vaccination and current Care Quality Commission rating. The CQC supports risk-based decisions made on admissions to support the discharge of people with a negative covid test result, but, of course, we must continue to ensure the safety of those in care homes.
The workforce are absolutely central to growing NHS capacity. The advice in a Migration Advisory Committee report was to amend migration policies, make
“Care Workers and Home Carers…immediately eligible for the Health and Care Worker Visa and place the occupation on the Shortage Occupation List.”
When will the UK Government start listening to their advisers and change migration policies to alleviate the pressures facing our NHS?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the tone of his question. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the workforce. The workforce are the golden thread that runs through the heart of everything we do in our NHS, which is why we have already taken a number of steps to increase our workforce. We are well on target to meet our target of 50,000 more nurses. As I mentioned in my initial answer, in August last year we had over 20,000 more clinically qualified staff compared with August 2020, so we continue to grow the workforce.
Delivering new community hospitals is a key part of upgrading and expanding NHS capacity. The Department is currently examining a bid to rebuild and expand services at Thornbury Hospital, which is desperately needed due to the expansion of the town. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the next steps in delivering this vital infrastructure improvement in south Gloucestershire?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that, in looking to meet the demand challenges imposed on our NHS, it is not just about district, general or acute hospitals, but about all our hospital facilities, including community hospitals. He has raised this subject with me on a number of occasions. He is a doughty champion for Thornbury and, of course, I am always happy to meet him.
On the issue of capacity, the argument has always been floating around that bed numbers can be cut on the basis of medical and technological advances. That was always deeply suspect, but in the context of covid-19 and its aftermath, can the Minister assure the House that there will be no cuts in bed numbers in any future hospital reconfiguration?
Decisions on hospital reconfigurations and changes to local hospital systems are a matter for the local NHS, following full consultation and consideration of the needs of local communities. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of bed capacity in the NHS. The NHS as a whole will continue to look at what bed capacity is needed to meet future need.
My constituent David Hulbert contacted me to ask that I pay tribute in the Chamber to the phenomenal NHS teams from both Mount Vernon Hospital and Watford General Hospital for the care he has received, following his admission for cancer. Will the Minister join me in thanking the NHS for its tireless, backlog-clearing work, and for continuing with lifesaving non-covid operations, alongside its ongoing heroic actions leading our covid fight and vaccine roll-out?
I am always happy to take the opportunity, as I know the Opposition Front-Bench team and my colleagues are, to thank the amazing NHS workforce for the work they have done. I pay tribute to the work of the teams at Mount Vernon and Watford General and, in the context of the pandemic, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), who volunteered to help out at the hospital.
The Minister highlighted the use of independent care providers. Last week, the Department announced that 150 hospitals would be on standby for three months to provide additional resource. Can the Minister tell the House when he or his Secretary of State asked NHS England to investigate standing up the 150 hospitals, which will receive a minimum income guarantee of £75 million to £90 million a month?
I think I heard the hon. Lady correctly and she asked when those discussions began. That was last year, prior to the peak of this wave. We believe that the use of the independent sector to assist our NHS and provide additional capacity is absolutely the right thing to do. Thus far, during the course of the pandemic, it has provided, I believe, over 5 million procedures to patients. Therefore, we think this is a valuable and important addition to our capacity, and it is right that we have this surge capacity insurance policy in place to help to meet further demand.