Hospitals should free up beds by safely discharging patients before the “big disruption” caused by industrial action by ambulance crews, health chiefs said.
They warned of “a very challenging period” when ambulance crews in England and Wales walk out for two days, December 21 and 28, in a dispute over pay.
It follows the one-day strike on Thursday by nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In a joint letter with the national medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, and the head of nursing, Dame Ruth May, to NHS trusts and integrated care boards, Sir David Sloman, chief operating officer of the NHS England, He said that measures must also be implemented to guarantee the transfer of patients by ambulance. They are kept for no more than 15 minutes.
NHS data shows that ambulance delivery delays at hospitals in England have reached a new high, with one in six patients last week waiting more than an hour to get through to A&E teams.
Just over one in three had to wait at least 30 minutes. The numbers are higher than at any point in recent winters.
NHS Providers interim chief executive Saffron Cordery said: “NHS England is asking trust and systems leaders to focus on reducing transfer delays and maximizing capacity in urgent and emergency care.”
“But given the scale of operational pressures on providers that now include very high levels of bed occupancy, rising flu admissions, continued pressures from COVID-19, record staff absences and rising attendances to the ER, this will be incredibly difficult to implement.
“We understand why ambulance staff have voted to strike, but it is vital that the government and unions speak urgently to find a way to prevent this and other strikes from happening.”
Meanwhile, Pat Cullen, secretary general of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said Health Secretary Steve Barclay’s “macho” negotiating style is hampering efforts to resolve the nurses’ pay dispute.
She said that when she met Barclay in the House of Commons on Monday, she had been “very confrontational” with him refusing to discuss salary.
“I see a macho culture in this government,” he said.
“He needs to get to a place where he’s inspired by the value of care and treatment. He doesn’t value that because it’s a 90% female profession.”
After Thursday’s strike, RCN members must strike again on Tuesday.
Ms Cullen urged Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to intervene before the dispute “engages” the NHS, warning there will be further “escalation” of action by nurses in January, which will mean longer walkouts and more organisations.
On a visit to Belfast on Friday, Sunak insisted that while “the door is always open for talks”, the government was determined to stick to the recommendations of the independent wage review body.
“We want to be fair, reasonable and constructive, which is why we accept the recommendations of an independent pay body on what would be a fair wage,” he said.
The NHS wage review body has recommended below-inflation pay increases of around 4% for nurses and the government refuses to negotiate with unions who want a higher offer because it has accepted this recommendation.
It has emerged that almost 16,000 appointments, procedures and surgeries in England were rescheduled, 54,000 fewer than suggested by the government, due to the strike on Thursday.
The figures were released after Health Minister Maria Caulfield said around 70,000 appointments would be lost due to the strike.
But, according to provisional data from the SNS reported by the trusts where the RCN strike occurred, 2,452 elective hospitalization and day procedures and 13,327 outpatient consultations were rescheduled, for a total of 15,779.
Across England, 9,999 employees were absent from work due to the strike, according to figures on the NHS England website.
The highest numbers were seen in the South West, where striking staff reached 2,372, with 2,023 in the Midlands and the next highest, 1,714 in the North East and Yorkshire.