NHS Reset: What lies ahead for the NHS in the wake of COVID-19? | Niall Dickson

Niall Dickson

NHS Reset is an NHS Confederation campaign to help shape what the health and care system should look like in the aftermath of the pandemic.
In this blog, part of a series of comment pieces from NHS Confederation members and partners, Niall Dickson 
looks ahead to what next for the NHS, reflecting on the experiences of senior leaders at the helm of the NHS at a time of national emergency.

We are still a long way from understanding the impact of the pandemic on just about every aspect of our lives. But in the NHS, there is widespread determination to use the tragedy and trauma of this terrible virus to change the way our services are provided. Put simply, everyone agrees we will never go back to the way things were and that there is an opportunity to ‘reset’ the way we deliver care and treatment. 

When the virus struck, the NHS in England was emerging from a difficult winter. In spite of extra funding, the service was struggling to meet extra demand, performance and finances were deteriorating, and we were in the early stages of a major transformation programme triggered by the NHS Long Term Plan.   

The last four months have turned the service inside out. The extent of changes across the health service has been extraordinary and has been achieved by a Herculean effort from managers, clinicians and support staff. They have also been accompanied by rapid changes in what is done and the way it is done. The oft quoted line from leaders is that what would have taken years has been achieved changes in weeks and sometimes in days.

There is a recognition that we need to do everything we can to capture, spread and preserve this innovation, which means that while the next period will be a massive challenge, there are also significant opportunities. As part of our NHS Reset campaign, we have been engaging with health and care leaders, politicians, partner organisations and others to help shape the debate on the health and care system in the aftermath of the pandemic.

All this, however, is set in the context of the enormous challenge facing a system in which a significant proportion of staff are exhausted; which is facing an unprecedented backlog of treatment; and which is attempting to resume services with the spectre of further outbreaks and with restrictions around social distancing and infection control, which severely reduce productivity.

For a new report, we have interviewed NHS trust chief executives and one message is crystal clear: the NHS must not return to how it used to be. Their insights give us a glimpse of how we might see the health and care system in the future but also enables us to reflect on the remarkable way the NHS has responded. I would like to thank the chief executives for their openness in sharing their personal and professional reflections with us. They are all part of the NHS Confederation’s peer support programme for first-time chief executives – around 50 trust chief executives have taken part in the programme since it started in 2016.

The new report, The NHS After COVID-19: The Views of Provider Trust Chief Executives, provides insight into the experiences of senior health leaders who found themselves in charge of highly complex organisations at a time of national emergency, when all eyes were on them and their teams to prevent an even greater catastrophe. It highlights the many positive changes that came about which need to be built upon as we step tentatively to a new normal.

Niall Dickson CBE is chief executive of the NHS Confederation. Follow him and the organisation on Twitter @NHSC_Niall @nhsconfed

Download The NHS After COVID-19: The Views of Provider Trust Chief Executives.

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