NHS trusts are being urged to fully use spare capacity, including independent sector, to restart non-urgent elective procedures under plans to restore some non-Covid-19 care over the next six weeks.
Matt Hancock announced on Monday that vital services, such as cancer care and some mental health provision, would begin to resume on a ‘locally-decided basis’ this week as the number of Coronavirus patients admitted to hospital continued to fall.
Urgent and time-critical services will be given priority but in a letter to NHS trusts and commissioners, NHS England (NHSE) said routine elective surgery, particularly for ‘long waiters’ could restart where ‘additional capacity is available’. It added that trusts should ‘make full use of all contracted independent sector hospital and diagnostic capacity’.
Under the historic deal signed by the NHS and independent providers in March, almost all independent sector hospital capacity has been signed over to the NHS until the end of June at the earliest.
Some hospitals in the sector have been repurposed for the treatment of Covid-19 patients while others have been set aside as ‘coronavirus-free’ zones to treat NHS patients requiring cancer care and other urgent elective treatment.
However, not all hospitals are currently being used at full capacity. In part, this is to ensure that ‘surge’ capacity is available if required to treat Covid-19 patients, but it has been reported that some consultants have been left ‘twiddling their thumbs’ in near-empty private hospitals.
NHSE said the health service needed to retain ‘surge’ capacity as the pandemic continued to play out.
‘It will also be prudent, at least for the time being, to consider retaining extra capacity that has been brought on line – including access to independent hospitals and Nightingale hospitals,’ it said.
In addition, it is urging trusts and commissioners to use independent hospitals and diagnostics for the remainder of the current contract and to begin discussions about potential contract extensions in May.