The NHS would need to deliver a staggering £22bn of cuts to balance the books under controversial plans for the future of the healthcare, the British Medical Association has warned.
Dr Mark Porter, the head of the doctors’ union, said there was a danger the plans are being “used as a cover for delivering cuts, starving services and resources and patients of vital care”.
Health managers in 44 areas of England have been ordered to draw up Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) setting out how they will reduce costs, change services and improve care in the wake of a record £2.45bn deficit for the last financial year.
The BMA analysed figures for savings found in documents from 42 areas.
A survey of 310 doctors in England also found that nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) had not been consulted on the plans. A third said they had never heard of STPs and a fifth did not support their introduction, according to a BMA poll.
Dr Porter, chairman of the BMA’s council, said: “Improving patient care must be the number one priority for these plans. Given the scale of the savings required in each area, there is a real risk that these transformation plans will be used a a cover for delivering cuts, starving services of resources and patients of vital care.”
He said STPs had the potential to create “greater longer-term planning of services”, but it was “extremely worrying” that the majority of doctors have not been consulted on the plans – as Government ministers had been “keen to insist” that they would be involved.
The plans, some of which have been published or leaked, could see some hospitals, A&E units or maternity units close, and other services merged.
Proposals for Cheshire and Merseyside include downgrading at least one A&E department, while there are plans to reduced the number of sites offering a full range of services in north-west London.
Birmingham and Solihull’s plan proposed a single “lead provider” for maternity care.
Earlier this month, analysis by the King’s Fund think-tank said the plans had been kept secret from the public and barely involved frontline staff or patients.
It said NHS England had told local health leaders not to reveal the plans until they were finalised and had been approved by their own officials, and to refuse applications from the media for information.
NHS England and some health experts argue that STPs will improve patient care and are necessary to fulfil the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s plan for full, seven-day services, but campaigners say they are just a way of cutting services.
The Liberal Democrats have urged the Chancellor Philip Hammond to use his Autumn Statement this week to pump £4bn of “emergency” funding into the NHS and social care.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow Health Secretary, said: “The financial crisis engulfing our NHS is staggering. The Tories are starving it of the cash needed and it is patients who are suffering as a result.”
“These warnings that the proposed changes to local services in STPs are overwhelmingly driven by cuts will set alarm bells ringing and rightly so.”
NHS medical director Professor Sir Bruce Keogh said: “It cannot be right that on any one day in England, over 5,000 people are stuck in a hospital bed when they don’t need to be.”
“Our NHS has constantly adapted to improve services for patients, taking advantage of new opportunities and making common-sense changes in areas that really matter to patients – making it easier to see a GP, providing more specialist services in people’s homes, speeding up cancer diagnosis and offering help faster to people with mental illness.”
“We are talking about steady incremental improvement, not a big bang, tackling things doctors and nurses have been telling us for years. By continuing to adapt to a changing world, the NHS will be able to secure a better service for future generations.”