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Winter crisis beds to be cut as strikes cost the NHS £1.4 billion, healthcare leaders warn

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Healthcare leaders have warned they will be forced to cut the number of beds ahead of winter to save money as NHS strikes cost hospitals £1.4 billion.

NHS bosses in England have said the health service is facing a “profound” financial crisis due to the ongoing strike action, which is compounded by increasing drug prices and continuing healthcare costs.

The warning comes as both junior doctors and consultants, represented by the British Medical Association, have agreed to enter into talks with the government.

NHS Confederation, which represents hospitals in England, said strike action alone has cost the NHS £1.4 billion over the last year.

Hospital leaders have said they have already been forced to make tough decisions, such as restricting the number of additional beds they open over winter, in order to cut costs.

Under the government and NHS England’s winter plan, 5,000 additional hospital beds were due to be opened ahead of winter to tackle demand.

Earlier this year The Independent revealed a warning from Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, that this winter that thousands more could die this winter because the government’s winter plan promises half the increase in beds that will be needed.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s promise to reduce the NHS waiting list of 7.75 million by March 2024 will “almost certainly be missed”, according to NHS Confederation. The waiting list has grown by 100,000 since January 2023 when the pledge was made.

NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said: “NHS leaders tell me that they are already having to take difficult choices every day on which services to cut back as they are not expecting any extra money to make up for the shortfall caused by the strikes, higher drug prices and pay costs being higher than the funding allocated at the start of the year. This will make an already difficult winter even harder to get through and we need the government to face up to this risk.

“Every day that passes without clarity on this issue results in more uncertainty and tough decisions having to be made.”

He said NHS leaders share health secretary Steve Barclay’s ambitions to increase productivity within the health service but that strikes are “acting as a handbrake on these ambitions” as staff are having to cancel and rebook patient appointments.

“This is not a trade-off between the economy and the NHS –  as a growing body of research, including by the NHS Confederation itself, has shown gaps in health and care have their own economic impact in terms of people being unable to seek or sustain employment,” he said.

NHS Confederation also warned the financial challenge is also being felt by the NHS Wales which is heading for a deficit of £650 million, while the shortfall in Northern Ireland is expected to be around £550 million.

The Department for Health and Social Care and The British Medical Association were approached for comment.