The Times: Jeremy Hunt asks ACEVO to help with A&E winter crisis

Jeremy Hunt calls on hospitals to use professional volunteers in A&E departments in an embarrassing U-turn over tackling the winter crisis

Jeremy Hunt has called on hospitals to use professional volunteers in A&E departments over the next few months in an embarrassing U-turn over tackling the winter crisis.

As David Cameron and the Health Secretary have become increasingly nervous about a repeat of last winter’s NHS fiasco, Mr Hunt has finally agreed that voluntary workers should be used to prevent the situation where the elderly take up many hospital beds.

After a meeting with charity leaders on Monday, Mr Hunt made clear that hospitals bidding for the £400 million allocated to cope with extra demand this winter would be expected to contact voluntary groups to help out in casualty departments and wards.

He also called on Acevo, which represents 1,500 charities, to help to draw up a national strategic plan for using volunteers to help stop the elderly blocking NHS beds from next April — and particularly next winter . The scheme could be linked with extra cash.

In a separate move, private health care companies that attended the same meeting have also offered to help out this winter by providing beds where patients have to wait for more than four hours in A&E departments.

Only two weeks ago Mr Hunt dismissed a detailed programme put forward by Sir Stephen Bubb, the Acevo chief executive, for 5,000 volunteers from the Red Cross, the Royal Voluntary Service and Age Concern to be deployed to help to keep the elderly out of hospitals this winter. Mr Hunt argued that hospitals should be responsible for how they spent their cash and turned down the £38 million plan.

“We are delighted about this change of heart,” Sir Stephen said. “This will make such a difference but the health service needs to respond quickly. This is about better care for the elderly as well as relieving pressure on casualty and NHS beds, so we need to act fast.”

Sir Stephen has now written to the 53 hospitals earmarked by the Department of Health for extra assistance this winter to offer direct help from the three voluntary organisations immediately.

Earlier this year the Department of Health  announced that £250 million would be available to help the 53 hospitals to prepare for the winter influx of patients, most of whom are elderly. Last month it allocated a further £150 million after signs that other hospitals would need more staff and beds to avoid a crisis.

“I have been told that all hospitals and clinical commissioning groups bidding for the cash for emergency care plans will need to show how they expect to make use of the voluntary sector,” Sir Stephen said.

He has been asked to “flesh out the details” of his plan to use thousands of professional volunteers from three charities from next April. Mr Hunt plans to visit the charities concerned and look at the work they do.

Under Acevo’s proposal, the volunteers would work with paramedics, A&E staff and consultants to assess whether elderly people could be cared for at home or discharged early to free beds. Where elderly people had presented themselves at A&E, the volunteers would help to assess whether they could be cared for at home instead with some extra support. In addition, volunteers would work on wards with consultants to allow elderly patients to be discharged early.

Sir Stephen was approached by Downing Street in early October to draw up a national rescue plan involving volunteers, which he delivered in two weeks. The scheme was said to have been backed by Mr Cameron but Mr Hunt was unconvinced. Instead NHS England announced an online campaign to get neighbours to act as Good Samaritans for their neighbours.

“This issue is far too important to be kicked into the long grass and we’re glad Mr Hunt agrees with us on that. Getting the health service to understand the role professional charities can play has been like pulling teeth, but I think we are now getting real progress,” Sir Stephen said. “I’m looking forward to working with Jeremy Hunt and the health service on this, but I shall be holding his feet to the fire to see if this is delivered on the ground.”

The Department of Health tried to play down any U-turn but said that hospitals would be able to approach private sector hospitals to help provide acute beds as well as using voluntary workers.

“Winter is always tough but planning started earlier than ever this year, including local assessments of how charities and the independent sector can help,” a Department of Health spokesman said. “ We expect the NHS to look at all the options to help to cope with increased pressure and in many places the voluntary sector continues to have an important role to play.”


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