'Use pharmacies to ease A&E strain'
Accident and Emergency services are facing unsustainable pressure and Britons should copy their European cousins and be treated by pharmacists instead, health officials have said.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned the NHS is facing an "unprecedented demand" as it copes with an ageing population, and this will combine with a surge in visits during the winter.
Mr Hunt today announced a £300 million boost to pay for more staff and extra bed space to cope with the expected spike in patients over the coming months.
But he warned it is "not sustainable" to continue to allow A&E to bear the brunt of this extra strain - as health bosses urged patients to be treated by pharmacists and paramedics instead.
Mr Hunt said: "Winter has always been particularly challenging for the NHS. We have been thinking about it particularly hard this year because of the growing pressure on A&E departments.
"Emergency admissions are growing about 3% to 4% year in, year out. We are very aware that over this winter there is going to be some real pressure there.
"The pressures are higher than they have ever been before in the system."
He added: "It is worth also asking the question, is this going to go on like this? Are we going to have to continue having to put more and more sums into the NHS to withstand these pressures?
"And the answer is that it is not sustainable in the long run to say that all the extra pressure in the NHS has to be borne by A&E departments."
Hospitals have had to cope with an extra one million visits to A&E every year compared with 2010 and 2,000 extra ambulance journeys a day, Mr Hunt said.
Many hospitals are struggling to find enough beds as admissions have also shot up. Figures from last week show that 104,100 patients were admitted to hospital compared with 98,700 from the same week last year.
Mr Hunt said today's announcement of £300 million comes after an injection of £400 million earlier this year.
Of this, £25 million will go towards widening access to GPs and £50 million will be ploughed into ambulance services. It will also pay for the equivalent of 1,000 extra doctors, 2,000 extra nurses and create up to 2,500 extra beds.
But Britain must "break the cycle of continually having to do more to help A&E departments withstand that pressure" by encouraging patients to use other health services, Mr Hunt said.
Health officials said they want the NHS to shift to a "seven-day cross-system" model. This would include better hospital staffing at weekends so beds are cleared quicker, and support for the frail and elderly to get treatment in their homes rather than enter hospital.
And they announced a major push to get Britons using their pharmacists more.
NHS England managing director Sir Bruce Keogh said: "We are keen to encourage people to use pharmacists more. In other parts of Europe pharmacies are very well used.
"And our GPs, frankly, during the winter feel really under strain with people coming in with coughs and colds. And a lot of that strain could be relieved if people use pharmacies more."
Officials are also urging more NHS staff to get the flu jab, warning those carrying the virus but not displaying symptoms risk unknowingly transmitting the illness to patients.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "We've been telling David Cameron for more than two years to get a grip on the crisis he created in A&E. Throwing money at it when winter's about to start is not good enough.
"This won't make up for the fact that £3 billion was wasted on a top-down reorganisation while patient care deteriorated. Labour will rescue the NHS with an extra £2.5 billion a year to fund 20,000 more nurses - investment the Tories will not match.
"England's A&Es are getting worse, not better, and this panic move is too little to stop the NHS facing a difficult winter. It is further evidence that David Cameron can't be trusted with it."
Dr Maureen Baker, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: "During the winter our patients need care more than ever. While we recognise that our hospital colleagues will be under increased pressure, so will GPs and practice teams, who already make 90% of all NHS patient contacts.
"An extra £25 million to help general practice cope with the rising number of patients who will need care over the winter will be put to very good use. We also expect CCGs (clinical commissioning groups) to have discussions about how more of the funding announced today can be ploughed into general practice so that we can reduce pressure on hospitals and prevent unnecessary admissions.
"Last year GPs made at least 360 million patient consultations - 40 million more than five years ago - and demand for our services will undoubtedly be higher in the coming months. A&E might be handling 3,000 extra attendances a day more than in 2010, but in the same period the number of patients visiting their GP has risen by over 120,000 a day."
Tom Sandford, director of the Royal College of Nursing in England, said: " NHS budgets are being squeezed while levels of demand continue upwards and the result is a system under immense strain. It was only last week that the Government's own auditors warned that the current approach is unsustainable and that NHS finances are getting worse.
"This NHS winter planning has been useful and the additional funding and promise of extra staff is greatly needed but it is a sticking plaster solution to the massive financial challenges facing the health service."