Struggling A&E units to get £500m bailout

David Cameron: "The money doesn't go with no strings attached"

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Struggling A&E units in England are to be given a £500m bailout over the next two years to ensure waiting times are kept under control.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the funds would be targeted at areas under most pressure after the NHS missed its waiting time target in the winter.

The money - sourced from savings - will be deployed in A&E units and linked community services, such as pharmacies.

Doctors said the government was guilty of "papering over the cracks".

News of the cash injection comes a fortnight after the Commons Health Select Committee said the "confusing" and "contradictory" information it had received over NHS crisis plans raised questions about whether it would be in a position to cope better next winter.

During the cross-party group's investigation, the MPs found just 17% of hospitals had the recommended level of consultant cover, while difficulties with discharging patients and a lack of beds at times meant the flow of patients through the system was disrupted.

'Pinch-points'

Dame Barbara Hakin: "We've got to have a short, medium and long term approach to the problems in urgent care"

The problems in A&E units have stabilised in the past few months, but from January to March the NHS, which has an annual budget of more than £100bn in England, missed its four-hour waiting time target as long waits hit their highest level for nine years.

More than 300,000 patients waited longer than they should have - a 39% rise on the previous year.

The Department of Health said £500m - sourced from its own efficiency savings programme - was being provided after the NHS had been working hard to put plans in place to cope with growing demands.

These included schemes being drawn up to provide more support to care homes to help the frail elderly and increasing opening hours at walk-in centres and pharmacies.

However, the money will be focused only on the minority of the 168 A&E units with the worst problems.

Dr Clifford Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he had "real concerns" about how the money would be allocated.

"It seems disingenuous, and in many ways demoralising to those that managed to apparently perform satisfactorily, to understand or realise that they will benefit from this not at all," he said.

As part of the cash injection, the troubled 111 non-emergency phone service is to get £15m. It comes after problems rolling out the service and the news last month that one of the major suppliers wanted to pull out.

Labour's Lord Hunt cautiously welcomed the move, but warned the money could be too little too late

Mr Cameron said it was important the NHS had the funds to tackle the "pinch-points".

"By acting now, we can ensure doctors, nurses and NHS staff have the support they need and patients are not left facing excessive waits for treatment," he said.

But doctors have cast doubt over the impact the money will have.

Dr Mann said: "It is a short-term fix. It does not address the underlying cause - we have a shortage of doctors."

'Decisions needed now'

A spokesman for the British Medical Association (BMA) said it was right that the government was listening to the concerns of doctors and patients but added: "At a time when they are demanding cuts of £20bn across the NHS, this is nothing more than papering over the cracks.

"It is recognition that their austerity programme has hospitals facing ever increasing demands with diminishing resources."

Labour's shadow health minister Jamie Reed said: "David Cameron's A&E crisis is a symptom of wider problems in the NHS and care system, which this announcement will not address."

Lord Hunt, Labour's deputy leader in the House of Lords, said he feared the extra money had come too late and warned: "Decisions need to be made now on spending in the winter."

Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George, a member of the Health Select Committee, said the money was "very welcome", but the government had to ensure it was "put to best use" and "distributed fairly".

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