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Health Secretary: Avoiding winter crisis in NHS is ‘number one priority’

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Health Secretary Victoria Atkins talks to the media outside the BBC Broadcasting House in London, after appearing on the BBC One current affairs programme, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. Picture date: Sunday December 3, 2023 (Victoria Jones/PA)

The Health Secretary has described the bid to avoid a winter crisis in the NHS as her “number one priority”.

Victoria Atkins insisted the NHS has been working “very hard” to prepare for this winter and planning started “much earlier than normal”, adding there are extra beds and more ambulances on the road.

The Liberal Democrats said the Government is “flying blind into another winter crisis” while the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said staff are working in “dire situations” throughout the year.

Ms Atkins, who took on the role last month, told BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg: “It is my number one priority for the winter because I know the worry that people have, particularly when an accident or something like that happens. We are going to do everything we can.

“And actually, in fairness, the NHS has been working very hard to prepare for this winter. Planning started much earlier than normal. We’re building 5,000 beds in hospitals, we’ve got more ambulances on the road.

“We’ve also got through-access, such as telephony appointments. I know not everybody likes them. But actually for some people, they really do make the difference.”

In an earlier interview with Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips on Sky News, the senior Conservative said the “winter crisis is of course my absolute priority over the coming months” and that an “urgent and emergency care plan” is in place.

A total of 800 new ambulances have been introduced, she said.

Ms Atkins, asked on the BBC whether she had ever gone private, said: “I used it once for a second opinion many years ago.

Atkins couldn't provide any reassurance for patients stuck waiting for surgery and treatment
Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney

“But I’ve used the NHS my entire life.

“I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes on the NHS, and it has supported me every year of my life since.”

Liberal Democrat Treasury spokeswoman Sarah Olney said: “Atkins couldn’t provide any reassurance for patients stuck waiting for surgery and treatment.

“With no extra money for the NHS during the autumn statement, we’re flying blind into another winter crisis and Atkins wouldn’t even deny it.”

RCN chief nurse Nicola Ranger said: “Today we might be discussing the winter crisis but NHS performance has been falling over a decade regardless of the season. Cold months bring particular challenges but nursing staff are working in dire situations year-round.”

She added: “The Health Secretary admits this will be an extremely challenging winter.

“To tackle it head on, the Government should focus on correcting its decision to hand nurses one of the lowest pay rises in the public sector, deliver safe staffing levels including in legislation, and provide the investment the workforce plan needs to succeed.”

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