Nearly two million patients started paying for private healthcare during the pandemic, including for services that provide quicker access to a GP, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has suggested.
The think tank warned that ‘significant disruption’ to NHS services, such as those seen over the last two years, could ‘push’ more patients toward private alternatives, and called for greater staff support within the NHS to ease pressures on services.
According to a survey of more than 3,400 people, around 31% of adults in the UK found it difficult to access the care they needed during the pandemic – equivalent to 16 million people when extrapolated to reflect the whole country.
Of these people, 12% – or an estimated two million people – have instead accessed a private provider for care, it said.
A further 26% of those who struggled to access NHS services considered private options, but ultimately decided against it.
In an accompanying report, published today (2 March), the IPPR said the pandemic has ‘rapidly accelerated an existing trend of decline in access and outcomes’, claiming that 54% of people are finding it harder to speak with a GP since the pandemic started.
And nearly two-fifths (17%) of people said they would pay for private services if they needed to wait more than 18 weeks from GP referral to treatment.
It comes after the BMA warned that practices are offering more appointments ‘than they can safely accommodate’.
Up pay and improve conditions to support staff
To better support services, the IPPR called on the Government to devise a workforce retention plan, focused on improving working conditions and staff mental health.
The authors said that ‘workforce retention is the most important priority’ for building back services, adding that staff shortages are ‘the biggest barrier to the NHS’s long-term goals’.
They warned that that the future emergence of Covid variants may disrupt services further.
‘Moreover, continuing to run the NHS at the top of its capacity – rather than the top of its game – risks a catastrophic loss of workforce numbers, morale and productivity,’ they said.
They added a new plan from the Government should include increasing staff salaries, offering a guarantee of annual leave entitlements for five years and ‘a commitment to avoid reducing annual leave because of sickness’.
The suggested plan should also ‘clear entitlement to breaks’ to meet ‘basic needs during long shifts is vital to morale, productivity and safety’, it said.
Similarly, it recommended all health and care staff are given a ‘personalised mental health care plan’ if they request one.
Last month, the Government published its elective recovery plan, which was criticised for lacking a workforce plan.