The government’s promise to deliver a seven-day NHS service cannot be achieved for 20 years due to underfunding and understaffing, an expert has warned.

Professor Julian Bion, who is leading a large NHS-funded research project into the introduction of more services at weekends said, “I’ve been working as a frontline specialist in intensive care medicine for 30 years, doing nights and weekends and I think care at weekends isn’t as good as week days.

“I’m not sure that translates into more deaths. I am reasonably confident that it translates into less good outcomes for patients and families in a variety of ways. People who have been patients at hospitals at weekends know that they are rather different places than they are on weekdays.

“We are not sitting here to say there is not poverty of care at weekends. The question is what are the causes because unless you make the diagnosis you don’t get the treatment right, so unless we have an understanding of what the weekend effect is, and what factors feed into quality of care we’re not going to get the health policy right.”

Rachel Meacock, health economist at the University of Manchester, said some of the arguments around what causes the so-called “weekend effect”, with patients suffering higher death rates, were “flawed”.

She added: “There is absolutely no causal evidence that consultant staffing levels are causing the weekend effect.”

Bion also said that the £10 billion increase in the NHS in England budget between 2015 and 2020, which does not cover the cost of expanding NHS care on Saturdays and Sundays, would not be enough to accomplish what was a key pledge in last year’s Conservative policy.

“Seven-day services can’t be achieved within current funding. More money has to come from somewhere if we are going to get the totality of seven-day services right,” he added.

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