New targets measuring the number of hours lost to ambulances waiting outside A&E departments will be set for the NHS as part of a suite of plans to tackle winter pressures.
Six new targets have been set, including measuring how many NHS 111 calls are being abandoned before they are answered, the average 999 call answering times, and the average number of hours ambulances lose waiting outside of A&E.
Revealing the plan, NHS England it would also create the equivalent of 7,000 additional beds, which includes 2,400 “virtual wards” that could see patients discharged to their homes and monitored digitally.
Although it did not set out how it would staff those additional beds, the NHS authority said services would need to focus on retaining employees to manage winter demand.
Winter is usually the busiest period for the NHS and health leaders expect the combination of Covid and flu to pile more pressure on stretched services.
NHS England has said the health service will recruit more call handlers across the country so there are at least 4,800 staff working in NHS 111 and 2,500 in 999 call rooms.
It said the extra workers would help staff meet record demand, with a target to answer calls in an average of 10 seconds.
The package of measures includes an extra £10 million for mental health services for winter to help them deal with record demand and mental health professionals being deployed in 999 call centres to direct people in crisis towards appropriate services.
GP services will also get extra staff, including health and wellbeing coaches.
NHS medical director Stephen Powis said: “Winter is always a busy period for the NHS, and this is the first winter where we are likely to see combined pressures from Covid and flu, so it is right that we prepare as early as we can for the additional demand that we know we will face.
“Ahead of the winter, we want to make sure we are doing everything we possibly can to free up capacity so that staff can ensure patients get the care they need – this includes timely discharge, working with social care, and better support in the community with the expansion of virtual wards.”
In moves to address the problem of delays in discharging patients from hospitals, NHS England said local NHS providers should “encourage” a shift to home-based rehab for patients.
The winter plan announcement comes after data on Thursday showed the worst-ever waiting times across A&Es in England in July, with ambulances taking an hour to respond to the second most urgent category of calls.
Responding to the announcements, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation Danny Mortimer said: “To have this plan from NHS England for winter set out in August highlights just how busy this winter could get, and the measures outlined to help plug the gaps will help our members to continue to plan and make decisions in the best interests of local services.
“There are a number of matters on which we look forward to hearing important detail, especially what additional funding will be made available to who and when.”
Mr Mortimer urged for clarity over the availability of staff and how the NHS will cope with its 105,000 vacancies this winter.
He added: “Last week 9 in 10 NHS leaders told us that a lack of capacity in social care is leading to significant extra demand on emergency care services and in not enabling hospitals to move medically fit patients back into the community as soon as they would like. The benefits of this plan will be maximised by government urgently introducing support for the social care sector, including on pay.”