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NHS Winter Update

Volume 743: debated on Monday 8 January 2024

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the winter pressures facing the national health service and social care, as well as the impact of the ongoing junior doctors’ strikes. The NHS employs 1.3 million people and the social care system a further 1.5 million people. Together, they treat and care for tens of millions of people every day. We all know that winter is the most challenging time of the year for the NHS and social care, as our workforce have to tackle the pressures created by cold weather and seasonal viruses.

To put our health and social care system in a strong position heading into winter, this year we started preparing earlier than ever before. In January last year, we published our recovery plan for urgent and emergency care and provided £1 billion of dedicated funding to boost emergency capacity. The plan committed to delivering 5,000 new permanent staffed beds. I am pleased to update the House that more than 3,000 were already in place in December, and in the coming weeks NHS England will meet the 5,000 pledge and make sure that it has almost 100,000 core beds ready when covid and flu peak.

Our recovery plan also pledged 10,000 virtual ward beds so that more patients can be monitored safely at home, away from hospital. I am pleased to update the House that we have delivered more than 11,000 virtual ward beds, and they have been a vital service for eligible patients over the festive period.

We have boosted our ambulance service with £200 million of additional funding, putting new vehicles on the road, improving response times and getting crews out and about for more hours. In recognition of the importance of patients being discharged promptly from hospital when it is safe to do so, we have made sure that every acute hospital in England has access to a care transfer hub, bringing together teams from the NHS and social care to speed up discharge, backed by an extra £600 million for social care. To help prevent the spread of winter viruses, we brought forward flu and covid vaccinations, protecting the most vulnerable and making them less likely to require hospital treatment.

But no matter how thorough our preparations are, winter will always be the most challenging time of the year for our NHS. That is why it is extremely regrettable that the British Medical Association’s junior doctors committee has chosen to strike not once, but twice at this time of year. It has also chosen to strike for an unprecedented length of time, putting profound pressure on hospitals and GP surgeries throughout the country.

Before Christmas, the BMA’s strike caused the cancellation of almost 90,000 appointments, some of which will have to be rescheduled for a second or even third time. That is in addition to the 1.1 million appointments that have already been affected since strikes began in December 2022. This is not just another statistic; there is a person behind every one of these appointments, who may be in pain or distress and who now must wait longer for the care they deserve.

Last week, a member of the BMA leadership said

“strike action benefits absolutely nobody.”

They were absolutely right on that. The ongoing strikes are causing more appointments to be cancelled and more worry for patients, and are putting a significant strain on staff.

During December’s and this week’s strikes, the NHS’s priority has been to protect patient safety. Resources have been channelled into urgent and emergency care, including vital neonatal and maternity services. Huge efforts were made to make the most of the working days between Christmas and new year, because throughout any strike action, it is crucial that every patient who needs urgent medical care comes forward as normal. We continue to face challenges, and strikes have stretched emergency care, but thanks to the meticulous hard work in local trusts in preparing for strikes, as well as to the huge personal sacrifices that clinicians and staff are making to pick up the slack, emergency care has largely held up and the system has coped under the circumstances.

Staff across the NHS deserve our sincerest thanks for the heroic efforts they have made throughout the unprecedented strikes. I thank the doctors, nurses, paramedics and all frontline staff who have come into work to support each other, deliver care and protect patients; the consultants, including Members of this House, who are working extra hours, cancelling their holidays or even coming out of retirement to safeguard patient safety; the managers, administrators and NHS leaders who are working day and night to make sure that the right staff are in the right place to protect patient safety; and all those working in social care, from local authority staff to care workers and carers, who have rallied round to support hospitals.

I know that work does not stop when the strikes stop. NHS staff will begin turning their attention to recovering from the impact of the industrial action, restarting elective treatment and improving the flow of patients through emergency departments. The junior doctors committee’s choice to strike at this time of year means that that work must now be done under additional pressures, as staff move to catch up from industrial action as well as tackling the impacts of cold weather, covid, flu and norovirus.

I want to find fair and reasonable solutions to industrial action. One of my first acts as Health and Social Care Secretary was to bring in the British Medical Association for talks to end these long-running disputes, as well as meeting representatives for Agenda for Change unions who speak for frontline staff, including nurses. We have reached agreements with unions that represent consultants and specialty doctors on offers to be put to their members. Those offers will modernise contracts, realign pay scales and improve doctors’ career progression, while delivering value for the taxpayer and protecting the hard-won progress we have made to halve inflation. Consultants and specialty doctors are pausing strike action while members vote on the offers, with the results of both ballots expected shortly. The Government and BMA agree that they are the best deals available to us, and I very much hope that members will vote in favour so that those positive changes can be made and we can move the NHS forward.

On junior doctor negotiations, the talks that began in November had been progressing with the BMA junior doctors committee. The talks were constructive, exploring a range of proposals that would improve the working lives of doctors across the NHS. I was therefore extremely disappointed when the BMA turned its back on the negotiations before they had concluded to call the damaging strikes that we face today. The Government will not negotiate with the BMA while strike action is under way and patient safety is at risk. Every strike is hugely disruptive for our NHS. The NHS and patient safety cannot be switched on and off on a whim. I do not believe it right to negotiate with unions while they are being unreasonable and some of their members are walking out of hospitals at the busiest and most challenging time of year for patients.

I remind the House that the junior doctors committee’s headline demand of a 35% pay rise is simply unaffordable for taxpayers. Last summer, we accepted the recommendations of the independent pay review body in full. That meant that junior doctors received average pay rises of almost 9% in their September pay packets—some of the most generous increases across the entire public sector. Meeting the 35% demand would stoke inflation just as we as a country have halved it, burning a hole in the pockets of families up and down the country, and it would be totally out of step with the pay rises awarded to other dedicated public servants and employees throughout the private sector. Staff across the public sector have agreed fair and reasonable deals on pay; only the junior doctors committee has repeatedly walked away from talks.

Let me address the issue of NHS leaders asking some junior doctors to return to work when patient safety is at risk, in what are known as patient safety mitigations or derogations. As of 9.30 this morning, 40 patient safety mitigations have been submitted during the current round of strikes, and two have been accepted by the BMA. NHS leaders, many of whom are themselves members of the BMA, have decades of combined experience. They know their patients and they know their rotas, and they would ask for mitigations only if they were absolutely necessary—in, for example, a children’s emergency department. They are wholly independent of Government: it is for them to make those decisions. I trust them and I trust their judgment. That is the reality, and that is the truth about patient safety mitigations.

One of the reasons why I came into politics was the NHS and what it had done for me and my family. That is also one of the reasons why I am a Conservative. This is a Government who have delivered record NHS funding, the first ever NHS long-term workforce plan, and 50,000 more nurses for our NHS. We are providing the NHS with the doctors it needs for the future by doubling the number of medical school places, opening five new medical schools and pioneering one of the world’s first medical apprenticeships. We have also supported doctors by making changes to pensions for those at the very top of their career path—at that point, that was the BMA’s No. 1 ask, and a policy that the Opposition seemed to oppose.

Those are not the actions of a Government who are turning their back on the NHS, as some have declared. They are the actions of a Government who are building a health and social care system that is sustainable for the long term. To do that, we must put the strikes behind us and move forward together, because the NHS belongs not just to the junior doctors committee: it belongs to us all. It belongs to the millions of people who rely on its being there when they need care, as well as the millions of taxpayers who pay for it. For their benefit, it is time for the members of the junior doctors committee to show that they are serious about doing a deal. They have legitimate concerns about their working lives, and a fair and reasonable deal can be reached, but calling damaging strikes is not the way in which to achieve that. Earlier this week I said that if they called off their damaging strike action, I would get round the table with them in 20 minutes. I am, of course, extremely disappointed that they refused my offer, and continue to refuse it—the strikes are ongoing as we speak—but if they come to the negotiating table with reasonable expectations, I will sit down with them.

This Government have a clear, long-term plan for the NHS. Our recovery plans in elective, emergency and primary care can improve access to treatment, transform services, and give patients more choice in and control over their care. Our long-term workforce plan will give the NHS the staff it needs to thrive for decades to come, our social care reforms will build a better care workforce to support our growing number of older people, and by creating the first smoke-free generation we will reduce long-term pressure on our health service. We have eliminated the longest waits, but we have not yet made a significant enough reduction in waiting lists. To do that, we need the junior doctors committee to come to the table and do a deal that is in the interests of patients, in the interests of our NHS, and in the national interest. Then we can build an NHS that is not only stronger today, but stronger for our children and grandchildren.

I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance site of her statement and wish her and the whole House a happy new year.

Unfortunately, the NHS is beginning 2024 the same way it ended 2022—on strike. This week’s industrial action by junior doctors is the longest strike in the history of the NHS at the worst possible time, because even before the strikes this week the NHS was struggling to stay afloat this winter. Hospitals were declaring critical incidents before the strikes. Patients were waiting dangerously long for ambulances and in A&E before the strikes. Ambulances were queueing up outside hospitals for hours to hand over patients before the strikes. The truth is, before the strikes, and before the pandemic, the NHS has been facing winter crisis after winter crisis as a direct result of the Conservatives’ failure—their failure to train enough staff, their failure to arm the health service with modern technology, and their failure to reform.

In January last year, the Prime Minister published an urgent and emergency care recovery plan, promising

“the largest and fastest-ever improvement in emergency waiting times in the NHS’s history”.

Instead, heart attack and stroke victims are waiting even longer for an ambulance, and A&E waiting times are the worst they have been all year. The Prime Minister promised 800 more ambulances, but the Government have now admitted that they are just replacing existing ambulances. He promised that 50,000 patients a month would be treated in virtual wards, but in reality it is fewer than 8,000 patients. Is not the truth that the Conservatives have once again sent the NHS naked into the winter, and patients are paying the price?

Given how ill-equipped the Government left the NHS, and given the desperate pleas from NHS leaders for the strikes to be resolved, why on earth did the Government choose to sit back and let this damaging strike action go ahead? Not only did the Health Secretary allow talks with the junior doctors to collapse and refuse to reopen negotiations until tomorrow, when the damage will have been done; at the 11th hour, as junior doctors stood on the edge of this strike action, she chose to push them straight into it. In what way was it helpful for the Secretary of State, in a series of broadcast interviews, to patronise junior doctors by rebranding them as “doctors in training”? A junior doctor can have 10 years’ experience under their belt; they do not expect to be trolled by Ministers who have been in office for barely 10 minutes.

In the Prime Minister’s interview on the BBC yesterday, we saw why he has allowed the strikes to go on for so long without intervening himself: he is using industrial action as an excuse for the state his party has left the NHS in after 14 years. He would rather blame NHS doctors and nurses than take a shred of responsibility himself. Meanwhile, patients cannot get an appointment, cannot get the surgery they need and cannot see a GP, NHS dentistry is decaying, and the NHS itself is on life support. While he was bragging about all the parts of the NHS that are not currently on strike—that is how low he now sets the bar—he seemed to have forgotten that nurses are still in formal dispute. Is he so uninterested in our nation’s health service that he did not know? Was he trying to pull the wool over the voters’ eyes? Or is he just another Tory Prime Minister asleep at the wheel as he drives the country off a cliff?

There was one thing that the Prime Minister got right in his interview with Laura Kuenssberg yesterday. Whether the question was on the NHS, immigration or the economy, his response was the same: ask the Leader of the Opposition. It seems that even this Conservative Prime Minister knows that if we want serious solutions to the problems facing the country today, there is only one place to look, and that is the Labour party.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that people do not give way during a statement.

Patients are sick and tired of waiting—waiting for ambulances, waiting for a GP appointment, waiting for their operation and waiting for a general election that cannot come soon enough. Why do the Conservatives not get out of the way and let Labour fix the mess they have made?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman back from his world tour promoting his book. It is very nice to meet him for the first time across the Dispatch Box. While he was away in sunnier climes, he may have missed what is actually happening in Wales, which interestingly has been described by the Leader of the Opposition as the “blueprint” for how Labour will run the NHS, were it ever to come into government. Interestingly, in the Labour-run Welsh NHS, people are almost twice as likely to be waiting for treatment, and they are waiting an average of five weeks longer for NHS treatment under Labour in Wales than they do in England. Indeed, the number of patients in Wales seeking treatment in England has increased by 40% in two years because of the experiences that people are having in Wales.

I will just correct the hon. Gentleman on a couple of other things, too. Just to help him understand, we are delivering the 800 new ambulances—those are new ambulances—at pace at the request of the NHS, just as we are putting in 5,000 extra beds in hospitals across England, because we understand the point about capacity and we want to help the NHS look after people in a timely and efficient manner.

I will also just correct him again on the doctors in training point. I am surprised he has come on to that at this point, but had he spoken to his friends in the BMA, he would have understood that that is the phrase that the BMA is using. It has passed a motion to stop using the phrase “junior doctors”. [Interruption.] Yes, the BMA passed a motion. The hon. Gentleman referred to doctors, but he perhaps does not understand the complexities of contractual negotiations. The phrasing is used to denote those professionals who are still on formal training pathways who are not specialty doctors or consultants. That terminology has been agreed with the BMA.

In terms of the strikes themselves, I note—I know that those sat behind me on the Government Benches noted it, too—that the hon. Gentleman did not condemn the strikes. I am happy to give way, if he would like to confirm whether he condemns the strikes. Unfortunately, he has missed his chance to do so, but I suspect that everybody, including the patients at home waiting for appointments, will see the Labour shadow Minister’s failure to condemn these strikes. That is because, in line with public sector strikes more generally, the Labour movement will always prioritise union harmony over patient safety. That is not what we as Conservatives do; we will always put patient safety first.

Happy new year. The Secretary of State will know that it is far from all doctors in training who have taken part in this strike. In my trust, Hampshire Hospitals, it was just over 60%, and the average across the south-east was little more than 50%. Many doctors were hard at work this past week caring for their patients. Does my right hon. Friend share the concern of many in the health service that the longer this dispute drags on, the more we lose the good will of the consultants who have been filling in and the more we do serious damage to the career pipeline that sees today’s doctors in training become tomorrow’s consultants?

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question and for noting the enormous efforts that clinicians across the NHS have gone to in order to cover these strikes. We are conscious of the personal impacts that has had for many, and clinicians have had a very tough few Christmases. We were all collectively hoping that this Christmas would be just a little bit easier for them, but sadly these strikes have a real impact on people who are working to pick up the slack from junior doctors not turning up. I am grateful to everyone who has gone into work, who has worked extra shifts and who has cancelled time off with their families. We must find a fair and reasonable solution to this industrial action, which is precisely why I was so very disappointed that the BMA junior doctors committee chose to walk away from these discussions.

A very happy new year to you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Our NHS faces an unprecedented winter of pressure, with inflationary costs, increasing viral infections and staff shortages. While the SNP Scottish Government have acted with £300 million to cut waiting lists and negotiated with NHS staff, preventing even a day of strike action, NHS England is undergoing a junior doctors strike—the longest in the history of any NHS in the UK. No one wants strike action, but it works, which is exactly why the Tories want to ban it. In fact, this Tory Government appear to be working to make this winter harder by cutting NHS capital funding, undercutting attempts to recruit new staff and not getting round the table with trade unions, instead blaming the BMA and junior doctors. Is the decision to underpay NHS staff and stoke strikes the policy of this Health Secretary, or is she being forced down that path by a Chancellor who is continuing his decade-long war on junior doctors?

I imagine that the hon. Lady has seen that we accepted in full the pay review body’s recommendations last year and, as of September, junior doctors and doctors in training have received on average an 8.8% increase on their basic salaries—they also earn money on top for antisocial hours, working overtime and so on. In addition, they have pension contributions of some 20%, which is a rare employment benefit across both the public and private sectors. In the future, I want to find a fair and reasonable settlement with the junior doctors, as we have been able to reach with consultants and specialty doctors, but we cannot do that if junior doctors are on strike. That is why it is so very disappointing that they walked away from the discussions.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s factual statement on the state of the NHS in her winter update. Will she confirm that she would return to the negotiating table immediately were the BMA to call off these very damaging strikes?

I welcome my right hon. Friend back. I have said throughout this that I was extremely disappointed that the committee chose to walk away from discussions. I also think that there is a lot more to discuss apart from pay—I have made it clear that I would like to look at other aspects of their working conditions—but, unfortunately, the junior doctors committee walked out. The strike action has had a real-terms impact on patients. We need to find a fair and reasonable solution, but I will not do that while the junior doctors committee maintains strikes. It will have to come to the table with reasonable expectations and change their minds on the validity of strike action.

We have had 14 Tory winters. One would have thought that they would learn by now that the real crisis in our NHS is that social care is not up to scratch. A quarter of patients in my local hospital are waiting for social care. As a result of jamming the back door, the front door becomes inaccessible to so many patients. After all these years, when will the Secretary of State publish a proper plan for social care, or will she leave it to my right hon. Friend to take over?

I am so sorry, I do not know who the hon. Lady is referring to. On the Conservatives’ plans, at the 2022 autumn statement we announced up to £7.5 billion of additional funding—an historic increase—and we did not stop there. This summer, we announced an additional £600 million, which brings it up to £8.1 billion of additional funding over two years. That will support our care workforce, and the majority of the funding will end up in the pockets of the amazing people who provide care and support to the patients we are all concerned about.

I declare my interest as a member of the BMA and an NHS consultant who has worked during the industrial action. Let us make no mistake that these strikes are causing suffering to patients, both adults and children. The derogation process has not worked because, as the Secretary of State said, the BMA has not returned junior doctors to work when they have been asked to—where there has been a risk of dangerous harm to patients. The first duty of any Government is to protect their citizens, so when will the Secretary of State bring forward the minimum service levels to protect patients from these dangerous strikes?

First, I sincerely thank my hon. Friend. I was in contact with her over the weekend when she had come off a very long shift in emergency care, looking after patients locally. I have nothing but admiration for her and the many, many other people who stepped in at short notice to cover urgent and emergency care in our NHS during the strikes. On minimum service levels, she will know that we have already introduced them for ambulance services—something that was opposed by the Labour party—but we have just closed the consultation on minimum service levels in hospitals and we are, of course, carefully analysing the responses. Again, the point that 40—four zero—patient safety mitigations were made by NHS leaders yet only two were granted by the BMA, is very, very worrying when it comes to how seriously the BMA is taking concerns about patient safety.

A few weeks before Christmas, NHS bosses were here in Parliament briefing MPs that, notwithstanding their preparation for the winter crisis, the one thing that would push them to the brink would be a rise in respiratory illness. Now here we are: cases of flu, covid, RSV—respiratory syncytial virus —and whooping cough are all rising rapidly. A strong public health intervention by the Government could have prevented that from happening. When will the Government get serious about public health interventions such as vaccine uptake, air filtration and protecting the immune compromised to stop people getting so ill so often for so long?

I thank the hon. Lady for re-emphasising the critical timing of the strike actions and the impact it has on patients. We know that winter is difficult. It is not just difficult for our healthcare system. Around the world, when cold winter strikes, it has physiological impacts on people with underlying health conditions. We also have a rise in infectious conditions, too. As she will appreciate, that is precisely why, on the advice of clinicians, we brought forward the flu and covid vaccination programme to try to protect the most vulnerable in our society. But again, the timing of the strikes is so very cynical, because their impact and tail will, I am sorry to say, have consequences beyond tomorrow’s stop date.

I was really concerned when my right hon. Friend mentioned the number of requests made to the BMA for certain duties in hospitals and that only two had been responded to positively. That is really concerning for patients. Contrast that with the behaviour of Nick Hulme, the acting chief executive at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, who has transformed its A&E in terms of waiting times. We need to promote such leaders, but we also need to unreservedly condemn the actions of the BMA junior doctors committee and get the strikes over and done with.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her work in the Department. She knows only too well the difference an inspirational leader can make to a local NHS trust, and at regional or national level. Managers who are good and committed to their local area, who work with their clinicians and other healthcare staff to try to look after patients all year round, have been put under the most enormous pressure over the last few weeks because of the strikes. I thank every single one of them for doing what they can to safeguard patient safety. As I say, I trust their judgment. If they have put patient safety mitigations in, it is because they consider, in their professional judgment, that they are needed.

The public health director in Hull published her report recently. She talked about the double jeopardy that my constituents face: from the most disadvantaged communities, they have shorter lives in far poorer health. At the end of last year in A&E, patients were less likely to be treated within the four-hour target than anywhere else in England. Why is that after 14 years of a Conservative Government who are committed, apparently, to levelling up?

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady, who will know that our constituencies, albeit not necessarily in the same region, nevertheless share similarities, being relatively close to each other. The work and the progress made on urgent and emergency care is precisely because we were concerned about, for example, ambulance response times and hospital discharges. We worked with NHSE to bring together the urgent and emergency care plan and, for example, bring about 800 new ambulances on to our roads and about 5,000 more core beds into the NHS to try to address those needs. Unfortunately, the strike action that we have seen over recent days has very much militated against those efforts. We all accept that winter is a very difficult time for the NHS, and through the urgent and emergency care plan we have worked with NHSE to try to meet the demands that she so rightly puts forward.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to reaching a fair and reasonable solution to the strikes. Worcester went into this winter with the delivery of a new emergency department and was able to deliver 21 beds-worth of extra capacity over the winter, but I have heard from the hospital today that it is still facing intense pressure. Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to the staff who are working around the clock to meet that pressure, and will she support the SWFT trust management as they work to address some of the key transport bottlenecks on its site, in the interests of patients and staff alike?

My hon. Friend sets out clearly the many pressures and factors at play in running emergency departments and hospitals at the best of times, when we are not in the middle of winter and facing the pressures that it always brings on the healthcare system. I thank not only staff in his trust, but staff throughout the country for the work they have done over recent weeks to support the NHS and to bring treatment to patients. We are working hand in glove with NHSE regional and local leaders to see whether there are practical measures that can be taken to improve the flow through hospitals.

NHS winter pressures are having a huge impact on cancer surgery and other cancer interventions. In Cumbria, in the south of the county 25% of those with a cancer diagnosis are waiting more than two months for their first intervention, and in the north of the county 47% are waiting more than two months. We know that every month’s delay in treatment means a 10% reduction in people’s chances of surviving. Some 123 cancer operations have been cancelled in the last year in our area. One reason is the lack of investment by this Government, and their predecessors of all colours, in radiotherapy. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and Conservative and Labour members of the all-party parliamentary group for radiotherapy, which I chair, to look at solving the problem by investing in the kit that Britain desperately needs to save lives?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that we have made cancer treatment waiting times a key focus of our elective recovery plan, which has been backed by an additional £8 billion in revenue funding across the spending review period. We have made progress by delivering record numbers of urgent cancer checks, with more than 2.9 million people seen in the 12 months to October last year. Of course there is more to do, and I would be very happy to meet him and colleagues across the House to discuss the practical ways by which treatment can reach our constituents. He will not be surprised to know that cancer is a priority not just for me personally, but for the Government as a whole.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement; there is a lot in it to welcome, but I particularly welcome the additional 11,000 virtual ward beds. Hospital at home is hugely popular and we know it takes pressure off our hospital. I thank all of the clinicians who helped to make that possible. Can she confirm that it is her intention now to go further and roll it out to more hospitals and more specialties, so that more patients can recover at home?

I thank my hon. Friend for all his work in making that happen. He worked very hard on virtual wards when he was a Health Minister, and they represent a real step change in how we treat people with long-term conditions who can be monitored safely at home. They mean that people do not have to spend time in hospital, with all the pressures that can mean for us as individuals. Importantly, that also frees up beds for other patients who need them. I am keen to roll the scheme out further. Indeed, we have not just met but exceeded our initial ambition, which is why I can confirm that we have delivered 11,000 places in the virtual bed ward category.

The BMA says that junior doctors’ pay has been cut in real terms by 26% through consistent below-inflation increases. If the Tories really cared about this strike and about the NHS, would they not have avoided creating the circumstances that made junior doctors so angry that they felt the need to go on strike? Does that not just show that you cannot trust the Tories with the NHS?

The figure that the BMA relies on is in fact from 2008, when the Labour party was in government for the first two years. The BMA cites a 35% pay rise. Just to clarify, independent organisations such as Full Fact and the Institute for Government rely on the consumer prices index measure, which shows a difference of 11% to 16%. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take into account the fact that we have already given graduate doctors, in their first year out of medical school, a rise of 10.3%, and I was willing to negotiate further and consider additional settlements that are fair and reasonable to the taxpayer.

Is the Health Secretary aware that the impact of these strikes on the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust has seen more than 7,000 appointments and operations cancelled and several million pounds in extra costs to the trust—and that is before the most recent strikes. Does she share my concern that the junior doctors are pursuing an unreasonable pay demand and causing lasting damage to patients and the finances of the NHS?

My hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate on the challenges facing his rural and coastal community. We all know that geography is a factor in the difficulties of delivering healthcare in his corner of England, but everything the trust and clinicians do is about trying to improve healthcare for his constituents. I cannot be the only one who felt uncomfortable at the image of some on the picket lines last week singing while our constituents were struggling with cancelled appointments and worried about urgent and emergency care times. I am very keen that we should reach fair and reasonable settlements with junior doctors, but in order for that to happen they must act reasonably, change their minds and call off the strikes.

Recently, Tamworth had clarification that mental health provision at the George Bryan Centre would not be invested in. From now on, patients must travel to Stafford for crisis care. Labour has pledged to recruit 8,500 more staff for community-based talking therapies in order to reduce waiting times and crises. Why have the Government not put in place a plan to recruit more NHS mental health staff?

We have—in the NHS long-term plan. We have set an ambition to grow the mental health workforce by an additional 27,000 staff between 2019-20 and 2023-24. That is in addition to the at least £2.3 billion of additional funding a year by March this year.

We are delighted to have our new community diagnostic centre, and of course our new A&E, under way in Scunthorpe. However, my right hon. Friend will know that we are fighting incredibly hard to prevent the loss of some of our hospital services. Of the hundreds of local residents who responded to my survey, over 98% agreed with me that we must not lose those services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in order for the NHS to provide resilience during the winter and the services that it wishes to provide to patients, hospital bosses need to listen carefully to what patients think?

Indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for all the hard work and advocacy she puts in on behalf of her constituents. If I may, I will ask the Minister for Health and Secondary Care to visit my hon. Friend’s hospital to discuss with her the concerns of local residents and to ensure that the trust is aware of them.

Two GPs from Seaton, in my part of Devon, moved to Australia to practise a little over two years ago. Both are working as full-time GPs, with no gaps in their career, and they now wish to return to east Devon to help ease winter pressures. Retesting someone who returns to England is lengthy, costly and bureaucratic, and it does not take into account practice in similar primary care settings. Can NHS England not make it easier for UK-trained GPs working in Australia, New Zealand or Canada to return to general practice in England?

That is a very fair challenge, and I will look into it, given that the hon. Gentleman has raised it.

The Labour party has been running the NHS in Wales for the last 27 years. The shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), highlighted that he was frustrated with waits for ambulances, GPs and operations. I politely point out to him, and to other Members, that my constituents in the Vale of Glamorgan, and people across the whole of Wales, are waiting much longer for ambulances, GPs and operations. In fact, a quarter of my constituents, and a quarter of people across the whole of Wales, are on an NHS waiting list. I advise my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that junior doctors and GPs are also in disputes in Wales, despite the claims made by Opposition Members. I therefore ask her to show some caution before taking advice from her shadow.

I will follow that advice with great enthusiasm. I have another statistic for my right hon. Friend: the Labour-run Welsh Government were hiding 45,000 patients from their A&E waiting figures in the first half of 2023, and falsely claiming that they perform better than England. If that is the blueprint for how it runs things, we should all be very worried if Labour ever again forms a UK Government.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Sarah Edwards), it was disappointing that the Secretary of State did not mention mental health in her statement. Given the rising levels of destitution and chronic bad housing in our country, mental health services have winter crises too these days. What progress is she making in developing proper waiting times for people in need of mental health services?

I reassure the hon. Lady that the impact of mental health patients remaining in A&E for any length of time, let alone beyond 72 hours, is genuinely a metric and factor that we look at very carefully, as we have done throughout the strikes. We appreciate that A&E is not the right environment for most people who are suffering from a mental health illness or a psychotic episode, and we want to move them into appropriate care as quickly and safely as we can. With that in mind, I hope that she will welcome the fact that we are spending some £7 million for up to 100 mental health ambulances over the next two years, to try to ensure that people get the right care they need, when they need it. More than 160 projects are being allocated funding in the community, including crisis cafés and safe havens, so that hopefully people are caught before the crisis happens and they end up in A&E.

I welcome the winter update from the Secretary of State. There is actually a winter update going on in South Leicestershire. Will she join local NHS stakeholders there, and me, in encouraging South Leicestershire’s constituents to respond to the consultation on the future of the Feilding Palmer Hospital? The deadline is 14 January.

I would be happy to do so. I am pleased to hear of local NHS leaders actively seeking the views of the patients and communities they serve, in order to ensure that their services are what the public expect from their local hospitals, and from primary and secondary care services.

I remember a former Conservative Prime Minister promising to fix social care, yet I am still hearing of too many patients who are medically fit for discharge being stuck in hospital. This time last year we had a record high of about 14,000 patients stuck in hospital who were fit for discharge. Will the Secretary of State tell us what the figure is at the moment, and whether she expects it to go up or down before the end of the month?

We are making progress. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that figure alters not just day by day, but hour by hour. We have been investing in social care packages precisely because we understand the importance of being able to discharge people promptly and safely into the appropriate social care setting, which can have a huge impact on flow through the hospital.

Other factors can also have an impact on flow, such as practical measures for people who perhaps do not need social care help when they leave hospital. We are looking at what we can do to improve those local factors as well. The hon. Gentleman is right to make the point that the social care system goes hand in hand with our NHS and hospital care. That is why we have been so keen this year to inject extra investment into social care—to try to alleviate some of the issues that he rightly raises.

The shadow Secretary of State seemed to forget the 50,000 hospital beds that Labour closed when they were in government—the thousands of mental health beds and the large number of wards they closed, including at Goole and District Hospital. But I digress.

I spent Christmas on duty as a first responder at the Yorkshire Ambulance Service—as the Secretary of State knows, the Minister for Health and Secondary Care performs the same role at the North West Ambulance Service—so I can attest to the professionalism and dedication of our ambulance services and of our 999 dispatch centres and the clinical hub that supports us at scene. Ambulance crews bear the strain not only of winter pressures year in, year out, but of this doctors’ strike. I urge the Secretary of State to pay tribute once again to their work and, as I have said before in this place, to consider what we can do to expand community paramedicine, so that, as demography changes and more older people are cared for at home, more people can be treated at scene rather than being taken to A&E.

I pay tribute to both my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Health and Secondary Care for their work as first responders. I would get into a lot of trouble in my own constituency if I did not mention the wonderful LIVES—our community first responders, who get to the scene of road accidents or emergency calls before ambulances and conduct the most extraordinary and complex procedures very safely on patients when they need it.

Recently, I was pleased to visit the London Ambulance Service to see for myself what team work can achieve across an ambulance service and how these highly qualified and experienced individuals can make a real difference to people’s lives and health after recovery. I send my sincere thanks to everyone who has been working in those capacities in recent weeks and over the festive period.

We have gone from no winter crisis when Labour left office to an annual winter crisis—and now a crisis all year round under this Conservative Government. Patient satisfaction with the NHS is at a record low. Instead of there being a blame culture, when will the Secretary of State accept responsibility for that appalling record?

I think the hon. Lady was claiming that there was no winter under Labour, but perhaps that is yet another thing that does not quite stack up. I fully endorse her call for an end to blame culture, but point her to the real and practical measures that we have taken to improve urgent and emergency NHS care. I assume that she joins those on the Government side in condemning the unprecedented strike actions that the junior doctors committee has called at this particular time of year.

Having chaired more than 150 meetings between Gloucestershire MPs and our NHS leaders, this week I am handing over the baton to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). My two thoughts are, first, to share the Secretary of State’s immense gratitude to everyone in the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital and our other services for all their continuing, amazing work; and secondly, to highlight that the biggest single impediment to reducing the elective surgery backlog—the hips, knees and much more of many of our constituents—is this continued strike by doctors in training. I am sorry, but the continued failure of the shadow Secretary of State to highlight whether he supports patients or strikers shows an absence of leadership. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the doctors in training, the doctors on strike, have already received, in 2023, a pay rise of between 8.1% and 10.3%?

I most certainly can confirm that—those doctors have already received the rise. As I said, I wanted to continue discussions on more fair and reasonable settlements for junior doctors, recognising as I do how tough their job is and the conditions under which they work. May I thank my hon. Friend for the leadership he has shown with his local trusts and clinicians? I agree with him that the one thing we have not heard from the Opposition is that they condemn the strikes. They seem to prioritise union harmony over patient safety.

Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust has one of the most challenged A&E departments in England, for a number of reasons. In August last year, the Government awarded a grant of £21 million to provide extra beds to ease some of the issues in A&E, but those beds are not online and operational yet. What assurances can the Secretary of State give us that the measures that have been taken to ease winter pressures will be in place to help people before the winter is over?

I will ask the Minister for Health and Secondary Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), to liaise with the hon. Lady directly. As I say, the latest figures I have from NHS England, working with local trusts, is that more than 3,000 of the extra 5,000 beds were in situ in December, and we expect the 5,000 deadline to be met very shortly. I hope she will see that at local level in her hospital very soon.

Is not the rejection by the BMA of derogation requests made on the basis of patient safety dangerously irresponsible? Rather than Dr Laurenson, co-chairman of the junior doctors committee, saying that the NHS hates doctors, it is past time that they called off this damaging strike action and put patients first.

Very much so—the NHS belongs to us all, as I say repeatedly. It goes without saying that doctors are a critical part of our workforce. That is why, since becoming Secretary of State, I have wanted to have a good, constructive working relationship with all of the representatives of doctors and the wider workforce. That was why I called in the BMA and “Agenda for Change” as soon as I possibly could, and I am pleased that I have been able to find fair and reasonable settlements with consultants and specialty doctors. I very much hope that junior doctors will call off their strikes and come back around the table so that we can find solutions for them too.

The latest period of strike action by junior doctors has been the longest in the NHS’s history. We have seen trusts declaring critical incidents and A&E departments telling patients not to come in unless their lives are under threat. Can the Secretary of State tell me why the Prime Minister has not stepped in to resolve the dispute? Does he think it is not serious enough?

As I said earlier, strikes have very serious consequences for the NHS. We cannot pretend that the NHS can be switched on and off at whim. My one ask of the junior doctors committee was that it stop the strikes so that we can return to the table. As the number of patient safety mitigations has revealed—by the way, it is the highest number of patient safety mitigations that local NHS leaders have ever asked for, because of the unprecedented length and timing of the strike—and because the BMA has refused even those derogations, with the exception of two, we have to get to a place where it returns to a more reasonable frame of mind and comes back to the table with more reasonable expectations, so that we can try to find a solution. I will not put patients’ safety at risk: I have to enable NHS England to make preparations and continue the work it is doing day by day, hour by hour, to safeguard hospitals and patients during this very damaging strike action.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be as concerned as my constituents in Kettering that, for every three days of junior doctor strikes, the cost to Kettering General Hospital is a staggering quarter of a million pounds, with hundreds of operations cancelled or delayed for patients in pain. In confirming that the 35% pay demand is both unrealistic and unaffordable, will she call for junior doctors to return to their posts so that that money can be better spent on reducing waiting lists and improving patient outcomes?

My hon. Friend puts it eloquently; there is a real human cost to these strike actions. It is why I did everything I could when we were in negotiations to try to find fair and reasonable settlements for junior doctors. I was very disappointed when they walked out, but we have to find solutions for the sake of our patients and of all 1.3 million people working in our NHS across England. There have been some brilliant examples of local trusts, local clinicians and other members of staff working really hard and pulling together to cover these damaging strikes, but all we ask of junior doctors is to come back to work, do their jobs and look after our patients.

NHS waiting lists have trebled since the Conservatives came to power almost 14 years ago. The Prime Minister’s pledge to cut waiting lists has effectively been abandoned, with the Government choosing to blame NHS staff instead of fixing the problems. Is it not the case that the longer we give the Conservative Government in power, the longer patients in Slough and across our country will, sadly, have to wait?

Waiting lists are coming down, but they are still too high. Towards the end of last year, we had a period without any strikes in the NHS. We saw the waiting lists fall by tens of thousands—indeed, by 65,000—over the period of October, which shows the impact of the industrial action. Sadly, we know that more than 1.1 million appointments have been rescheduled in the last 12 months. It is having an impact on waiting lists and, for the sake of patients, we ask the junior doctors to come back to work.

May I first thank Tracy Bullock, the chief executive of University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust, who has announced her retirement today due to ill health.

We have been making significant progress in north Staffordshire with improvements to health services. Nursing vacancies have declined significantly over the last year and £13.4 million has been invested in improving urgent and emergency care services, freeing up some beds, but what puts all that at risk are these reckless strikes. Some 867 appointments at the Royal Stoke have been cancelled, as have 38 operations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all the progress we are making is put at risk by these reckless and unprofessional strikes?

First of all, I join my hon. Friend in thanking Ms Bullock for her work and public service, and I wish her a speedy recovery.

On the progress made in my hon. Friend’s local area, he is right: there are some really encouraging signs for the future of the NHS. All the work that we have been doing across all the recovery plans—whether it is for urgent and emergency care, primary care or elective recovery plans—is about embedding progress in the future of our NHS in this year of all years, as we celebrate 75 years of its establishment.

On the impact of the junior doctors’ strikes, my hon. Friend is right to refer to the number of new nurses and the progress that has been made locally. In fact, this year we have been able to announce that we have met a manifesto commitment to recruit 50,000 more nurses. We made that promise in 2019. We have met it early, as well as the commitment to have 50 million more GP appointments than in 2019—two manifesto commitments made, and two manifesto commitments kept.

Happy new year, Mr Deputy Speaker.

More and more of my constituents are waiting longer and longer for emergency care. In 2010, the target for emergency care was 95% of patients within four hours. The Government watered down that target to 76%, and are not meeting that. When will they meet their own target, and when can we expect to see 95% of my constituents being seen within four hours?

I hope the hon. Gentleman is injecting the same anguish into the conversations that I imagine he is having with his local junior doctors, asking them to come back to work. Of course, having junior doctors not working in hospitals across the NHS has an impact—of course it does; they are a vital part of our NHS. The attention of NHS leaders, medical directors and clinicians over past weeks has had to be diverted towards covering the strike action rather than making the sorts of improvements and progress we all want to see across urgent and emergency care, in line with our recovery plan.

Happy new year, Mr Deputy Speaker. The majority of NHS staff at Southend Hospital are working incredibly hard. Despite winter pressures and industrial action, they have used winter money to open a new ward, adding extra bed spaces. However, the chief executive has written to tell me he is extremely concerned that approaching 40,000 out-patient and in-patient appointments across the Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust have been postponed since this industrial action started. This afternoon, we learned from the Secretary of State that doctors in training have received above inflation average pay rises of 9%, so is it not time that they simply got back to work, delivering the care my constituents deserve and pay for?

I thank my hon. Friend. We know the figures for previous strike actions, but sadly we will hear the true extent and impact of the strike action over the last six days later this week, and I suspect we will have even more missed and cancelled appointments to add to the list she rightly sets out.

On the point about pay, the basic pay of a foundation year one doctor has risen by 10.3%. Once one takes into account factors such as overtime and unsocial hours payments, that means the average salary is £40,800, a figure that I hope begins to reflect the importance we put on doctors and their role in the NHS. As doctors progress with their careers, there is a good package of development and progress, culminating in the pay settlement, currently out to ballot with the BMA, that I hope consultants, who are at the end of their career and do so much to help train younger doctors, will vote for. There is much work to be done, but progress has already been made on pay. That is why the decision by the BMA junior doctors committee to call strikes of such length at this time of year was so disappointing.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for responding to questions, and my thanks also go to those on the Opposition Front Bench.