The Health Secretary admitted there were “real pressures” facing the health service as NHS England urged hospitals to defer routine procedures such as hip replacements until the end of January to free up hospital beds and staff, amid reports many hospitals were plunged into crisis over the festive period.
Mr Hunt said the move, which could lead to up to 55,000 routine operations being delayed, was “absolutely not what I want” but conceded that hospitals were under huge pressure from the ageing population and a spike in flu and respiratory diseases.
Meanwhile, Theresa May acknowledged the news was frustrating for affected patients but said the NHS was “better prepared for this winter than ever before”.
However, critics said the situation was putting patients at risk, with former Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb warning there was “no doubt that patients will die and families will suffer” because of the pressure the NHS is under.
Mr Hunt told Sky News: “There are real pressures, no doubt about it. This is the busiest week of the year for the NHS and the first thing I want to say is a massive thank you to NHS staff who are working incredibly long hours, throughout the night and beyond the call of duty in every possible way.
“What is different this year compared to last year is that [last year] we had a lot of operations cancelled at the last minute, a lot of people were called up the day before their operation and told, ‘I’m sorry, it can’t go ahead’.
“And we recognise that it is better, if you are, unfortunately, going to have to cancel or postpone some operations, to do it in a planned way, and that’s why this year this independent panel has decided to take this decision and that, I think, in the end, is better for people.
“Although if you are someone whose operation has been delayed, I don’t belittle that for one moment and indeed I apologise to everyone who that has happened to.”
The move was revealed in new guidance from the health service’s national emergency pressures panel which told NHS trusts to extend cancellations of non-urgent operations until the end of January to manage winter pressures. The temporary block had been in place until mid-January.
The Prime Minister dismissed suggestions that the health service was in crisis and pledged operations would be rescheduled “as soon as possible”.
Speaking to reporters on a visit to Wokingham, Ms May said: “The NHS has been better prepared for this winter than ever before, we have put extra funding in.
“There are more beds available across the system, we’ve reduced the number of delayed discharges of elderly people who would otherwise have been in NHS beds rather than in social care.
“But I recognise for those people that have had their operations postponed this is disappointing, it’s frustrating.”
Mr Lamb said apologies from ministers would be of “little comfort” to people who have had their operations delayed.
He said: “Tragically this crisis was wholly predictable and preventable. People will rightly be infuriated that the Government has refused to put in enough resources to stave off another winter crisis.”
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the comments revealed how “entirely out of touch” the Prime Minister was over the challenges facing the health service.
He said: “The reality is we see hospitals at full capacity, ambulances backed up, cancelled operations and patients waiting for hours on trolleys.
“Instead of burying her head in the sand, Theresa May needs to explain why she has allowed underfunding and cuts to health and social care to continue.”
Doctors’ leaders have warned of pressures on every part of the system, from GP surgeries to community care, while social care shortages mean patients who are well enough to leave are trapped in hospital.
Dr Anthea Mowat, representative body chair of the British Medical Association, said: “The NHS is in the grips of another winter crisis, as patients face long delays in care, operations are cancelled and staff find themselves working under extremely difficult circumstances.
“Short-term fixes, however well meaning, will only get us so far. Each winter the pressure on the NHS worsens, and politicians are not taking the long-term view needed to ensure the NHS can keep up with rising demand.”