Ministers are setting up a £500m emergency fund to get thousands of medically fit patients out of hospital as soon as possible in an attempt to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed this winter.
Thérèse Coffey, the new health secretary, unveiled the move in the Commons on Thursday as part of her plans to tackle the growing crisis in the health service, especially patients’ long delays for care.
The newly created adult social care discharge fund is intended to relieve the pressure on overstretched hospitals in England by ensuring that patients whom doctors have judged well enough to leave can be safely discharged either to their home or into a care home.
More than 13,000 of the 100,000 NHS general and acute hospital beds are currently filled with “delayed discharge” patients, which has led to A&E units becoming snarled up and long delays in ambulance handovers.
The £500m will go to care home operators and providers of domiciliary care services, which mainly help the frail elderly who live at home with tasks such as eating, dressing and getting out of bed.
In her first speech since becoming the health secretary 16 days ago, Coffey told MPs: “I can announce today that we are launching a £500m adult social care discharge fund for this winter.
“The local NHS will be working with councils with targeted plans on specific care packages to support people being either in their own home or in the wider community. This £500m acts as the downpayment in the rebalancing of funding across health and social care as we develop our longer-term plan.”
The Guardian disclosed earlier in September that Coffey was examining plans to increase investment in social care in order to free up hospital beds.
However, it is unclear whether the £500m is genuinely new funding provided by the government or will come from an NHS budget already under pressure because of the rising cost of energy and basic supplies and also having to find £1.8bn to finance the 5% pay deal for NHS staff.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, claimed that Coffey’s proposals, called “our plan for patients” did not contain action anywhere near that needed to address the many difficulties faced by the NHS.
Reminding MPs that Coffey is the third health secretary in three months, Streeting said: “The faces change but the story remains the same. There is still no plan that comes close to meeting the scale of the challenge; no plan for staffing, no real plan for the NHS.”
He said a key weakness in her plan was a lack of proposals to tackle chronic NHS understaffing. Vacancies in the NHS in England recently soared from 105,000 to 133,000.
Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson and deputy leader, said: “Patients are being forced to pay a dangerous price for years of chronic underfunding and broken Conservative promises.”