I fully understand the concerns that have been raised with me about the number of challenges facing the health service this winter. Winter is always a difficult time of year for health services across the world, and I know that this year is no exception.
I appreciate the exceptional effort that NHS staff are currently putting in throughout our two local NHS Trusts, and across the country, and am very grateful for their continued hard work and dedication.
The Government has been working closely with the NHS to prepare for winter and these preparations began earlier than ever before: in the Spring Budget, the Chancellor pledged £100 million investment to support A&E departments throughout the country; and in December, the Government invested a further £337 million to support the NHS throughout the winter.
This money has, amongst other achievements, helped the NHS open over 1,000 more acute hospital beds since the end of November, and install GP streaming services in 91 per cent of A&E departments.
The preparations have also involved NHS Improvement working with Clinical Commissioning Groups, local authorities and emergency services since July 2017 to establish a clear plan to reduce delayed transfers of care between the NHS and social care services in order to free up between 2,000 and 3,000 beds.
Despite very challenging circumstances, these preparations have been of great help to the health service, whose staff have offered lifesaving, compassionate care at the hardest time of the year. I would like to echo Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS England's National Medical Director, and say that this winter has seen some of the best, and most thorough preparations on record.
In addition, the Department of Health and Public Health England have orchestrated the largest flu vaccination programme in history. £10 million was spent to expand the national flu vaccination programme to offer the vaccine to over 21 million people. The vaccine has been offered to all children aged two to eight and, for the first time ever, care home staff are also receiving vaccinations free of charge, matching the offer made to frontline NHS workers. This is part of Stay Well This Winter, a public health initiative designed to help the most vulnerable people prepare for, and stay healthy throughout, the winter.
We are also supporting GPs to provide extended hours through a winter indemnity scheme. This is designed to meet the costs of personal professional indemnity for any additional out of hours work undertaken by GPs between October 2017 – April 2018, ensuring they are well supported during the most challenging time of year.
It is incredibly unfortunate to see NHS England postpone non-urgent operations this January and I fully appreciate the distress and inconvenience this can cause. This emergency action was taken by the NHS National Emergency Pressures Panel, following sustained pressure on the NHS over Christmas, with no urgent, or cancer-related operations, being deferred. The Panel has been right to give patients significant notice of deferral, rather than cancelling operations with only a few hours' notice, as happened in previous years.
The Government is continuing to invest in the NHS every year - over the course of this parliament it will receive at least £8 billion additional real terms investment, along with £10 billion of capital investment, in order to ensure the provision of excellent care today, and maintain our recent ranking as the best and safest healthcare system in the world.