The NHS is stuck in “survival mode” as efforts and resources continue to be concentrated on short-term fixes, MPs have warned.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the financial position of the NHS remains in a “perilous state” despite the provision of a £1.8 billion rescue fund in 2016 – 2017.
The Department for Health and Social Care, NHS England and NHS Improvement are “too focused on propping up the system and balancing the books” and failing to create a long-term plan to improve patient services, they said.
The NHS is still very much in survival mode, with budgets unable to keep pace with demandPublic Accounts Committee
Meg Hillier, who chairs the influential committee, called for “fresh thinking” to address the NHS budget crisis as demand for services continues to grow.
She said: “The National Health Service continues to scrape by on emergency handouts and funds that were intended for essential investment.
“We have said it before and we will say it again: rescue packages and budget transfers are no substitute for a coherent, properly funded strategy that enables NHS trusts to plan, focus on patient care and lay the groundwork for long-term financial sustainability.
“Government’s last-minute response to what were entirely predictable winter pressures is just the latest vivid demonstration of why fresh thinking is so desperately needed.”
Ms Hillier said the committee had “repeatedly called” for a long-term plan for the NHS and said the Department for Health and Social Care must explain how it will approach the issue by July.
“Key to this will be securing a funding settlement from the Treasury that properly reflects current and anticipated demand for NHS services,” she said.
The committee’s report warns the NHS has a “long way to go before it is financially sustainable”, with trusts forecasting a deficit of over £900 million in 2017-2018.
It said: “The NHS is still very much in survival mode, with budgets unable to keep pace with demand.
“The Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and NHS Improvement are too focused on propping up the system and balancing the books in the short term and have not paid enough attention on transforming and improving patient services in the long term.”
While the Treasury announced £337 million in additional funding in November, in part to cope with winter pressures, the MPs said this was “too late” for trusts to effectively plan how it would be spent.
They warned cash injections “paper over the cracks in NHS finances rather than achieve lasting improvement”.
The committee said: “We are disappointed that the Department’s lack of action means we have to repeat some of the same messages as our previous reports on the dangers of short-term measures used to balance the NHS budget and the risks of raising investment funds to meet day-to-day spending.”
The MPs welcomed the decision to lift the 1% pay cap for NHS staff, but added: “We will be watching to see whether this will lead to better retention of staff.
“We also need to be clear that this is not robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
The report comes after almost 100 MPs called on Theresa May to establish a cross-party commission to address the crisis in NHS and social care.
The move is an attempt to break the “political deadlock” that has blocked repeated attempts to decide how to organise and fund services to cope with Britain’s ageing population.
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesman said: “As this report recognises, the NHS has made significant progress towards balancing the books and returning to a financially stable position.
“The Health and Social Care Secretary has acknowledged that funding for the NHS needs to be addressed with longer-term measures, rather than short-term, which the Department supported in the Autumn Budget, giving priority to the NHS with an extra £2.8 billion, on top of a planned £10 billion a year increase in its budget by 2020/21.”