The NHS is facing an even worse winter than last year with planning offering "nothing new other than crossed fingers", a leading doctors’ group has warned.

The Society of Acute Medicine (SAM) says it fears the NHS will break far worse this winter than last year because of the possibility of a major flu outbreak, and predicted routine operations will have to stop for months as the service struggles to cope.

NHS leaders have been planning for months to avoid a repeat of the near-meltdown last winter, when high demand forced A&E departments to turn patients away.

Trusts have been ordered to free up additional beds by discharging more patients into community care, and a national vaccination program is planned to try to head off a flu virus that has caused a record outbreak in the Antipodes.

Dr Nick Scriven, President of the SAM, said any significant flu or virus outbreak could cripple the system, and accused the Government of failing to properly fund the NHS.

Over the last two to three years we haven’t had to deal with any major outbreaks of infection such as norovirus or flu, but this year we are predicting a bad flu season that will overwhelm us after what we’ve witnessed in Australia and New Zealand, he said.

For all the talk of preparations, on the ground it feels as though there is nothing new this year other than crossed fingers – which is fair comment as the Government has failed to tackle effectively the issues behind the pressures we face.

If, as we expect, we see a flu outbreak, I think the NHS – in terms of both beds and clinical staff – will break far worse than last year and elective activity will almost certainly cease for several months.

The warning comes as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announces the extension of an existing Government scheme to try to recruit more GPs into areas with acute shortages, including rural and coastal communities.

Mr Hunt will announce a package of measures to tackle the recruitment crisis at the Royal College of GPs annual conference in Liverpool.

An existing scheme offering £20,000 golden hellos to trainee GPs will be extended into 2018 with the aim of recruiting 200 GPs in areas of most need.

Mr Hunt will also announce the expansion of a fast-track programme, currently targeting doctors in Australia.

The Government has pledged to recruit 5,000 doctors by 2020, but NHS England recently quadrupled its forecast for how many will have to come from abroad from 500 to 2,000.

As well as Australia, doctors in New Zealand, Canada, the United States and India will be targeted.

GPs considering retirement will also be offered flexible working arrangements to try to persuade them to stay in post rather than leaving and exacerbating the recruitment crisis.

The British Medical Association said the measures do not go far enough.

Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, said: These proposals do appear to acknowledge the specific problems facing rural areas in England.

But ‘golden hellos’ are not a new idea and unlikely to solve the overall workforce crisis given we are failing badly to train enough GPs to meet current demands.

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(c) Sky News 2017: NHS will ‘break far worse’ this winter, doctors’ group warns

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