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Primary care staff less likely to have time to recuperate after Covid, warns report

by Jess Hacker
24 March 2021

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Primary care staff could find it more challenging to take time off to recover from the pandemic due to services’ smaller workforces, the NHS Confederation has warned. 

In a new report, the body said providing time for staff to rest and recuperate as the NHS moves out of the current phase of the pandemic is essential.

It added that this is particularly important for staff experiencing anxiety.

The report, published today (24 March), is part of the Confederation’s NHS Reset campaign, which aims to shape how local systems and NHS care can be rebuilt after the pandemic.

It said there were ‘practical challenges’ to building in time for staff to recuperate across all services but ‘especially in primary care, which have a smaller workforce and have been support the national drive to return to business as usual’. ‘These are the same teams that have been working up to seven-day weeks to support the vaccination programme,’ the report said.  

It added that NHS organisations will ‘need to be creative’ to support individuals and whole teams, which may need different levels of support at different times.

Managing workload and patient expectations

NHS Confederation also warned that staff will need support from political leaders in managing public expectations of the recovery period including about how long it will take to fully recover services and to meet expected increase in demand ‘in key areas such as mental health’.

‘This will mean that fewer staff are available to respond both to ongoing Covid-19 requirements and to the backlog of routine procedures that has arisen during 2020,’ the report said.

It added that this would need to be supported by a strategy that addresses staff and patients’ unmet needs, developed at the national workforce planning level.

The NHS Confederation also said a number of conditions would need to be in place to ensure staff wellbeing is improved over the long term.

This includes addressing workloads and managers looking at how to ‘unblock obstacles, reduce unnecessary administration, support development of new roles and ways of working across teams’, it said.

Before the pandemic, having control over working hours was an important factor in retaining staff, and giving staff more control ‘will be key in the months ahead’, it added:

‘Primary care leaders tell us this needs to be set at all levels of the NHS, with a particular need to address expectations which require staff inputs or attendance outside normal working hours,’ the report said.

This would include making time during the working day for meetings, education and support activities, it added.

Risk of losing staff

The Confederation called on the Government to prevent ‘a real risk’ of losing ‘many of the people it needs to help tackle the backlog of care’.

The report highlighted that the health service in England entered the pandemic with around 90,000 vacancies for clinical roles and that – despite some staff returning or remaining in work to provide support during the crisis – the Government must push forward with plans for recruitment.

The NHS will otherwise fail to address the causes behind workload pressure and to support  staff recovery, it said, adding that the Government must give NHS teams hope that there is a longer-term plan to fill vacancies.

It said: ‘It may be necessary for the Government to review the scale of its plans to expand the workforce in light of what we know about meeting immediate, medium and longer-term service demands.’

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: ‘If we are going to get the NHS back on track, then we have to put the wellbeing of staff at the centre of our recovery plans and give them everything they need to get themselves back on track.

‘This must be underpinned by urgent investment to address long-standing vacancies in nursing and other key professions – this is at the root of the long-term workload pressures facing the NHS and its people.’

He added that there may be a temptation among teams and leader to immediately tackle the backlog.

‘But NHS leaders are clear that the NHS cannot bounce back without first giving NHS staff the time, space and support they need to properly recover. If we don’t look after them, then we cannot hope to look after patients,’ he said.