The chief executives body Acevo has called on the government to allow charities to support NHS staff at overrun accident and emergency departments at hospitals.
At a meeting yesterday with Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, and Una O’Brien, permanent secretary at the Department of Health, an Acevo-led delegation of health and social care charities including the Red Cross, Age UK and the Royal Voluntary Service proposed installing their volunteers and staff in the most stretched A&E departments to help feed and hydrate vulnerable patients, prevent unnecessary hospital admissions of elderly people in poor health and help to arrange follow-up care.
The charities told Heywood that their services were being wasted given that the NHS was experiencing what some have termed a "crisis" in its A&E departments, including long delays in treating patients and thousands of cancelled operations.
Acevo wants the government to commission a major national expansion of the existing policy for trained volunteers to assist in some hospitals. Services it says they could provide include arranging transport for elderly people who leave hospital, making home revisits to prevent readmissions, providing company for vulnerable patients to aid their recovery and signposting more appropriate services to patients.
"Things are moving very quickly," a spokesman for Acevo said. "This is a top priority for the government given the recent pressures on A&E departments."
Writing about yesterday’s meeting on his blog, Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, said: "It was productive and helpful. I was tasked with providing a report to indicate what we might do in the short term for the highest-priority hospitals, and I'm now busy talking with my chief executive members on what this might mean."
The spokesman said that a group of between 10 and 15 charity chief executives was due to meet tomorrow morning to discuss the issue and submit a plan to the government by Monday, when the government has committed to providing a full response.
Bubb said he told yesterday’s meeting that the three main barriers to change were the lack of understanding of the third sector among NHS staff, the absence of charity staff in hospital planning or early discharge teams and the lack of incentives for hospitals to work with charities.
"Ultimately, we need radical approaches to health and care that galvanise the third sector," he said. "Systems that move us from the margins to a partnership approach in the NHS and in councils.
"One of the earliest tasks for our charity sector, a millennium ago, was securing good health and care for the sick and old. It’s time the nation rediscovered the genius of charity."
A spokeswoman for the Red Cross, which held an internal meeting about the matter today, said: "Hospitals sometimes discharge patients when they no longer have significant clinical needs, only for them to return a few days later because they are distressed, frightened or not coping well on their own. This situation is frustrating and often distressing for patients and costly for the NHS. Our services can help to bridge this gap."