Rising tensions over the the capacity of the NHS to cope this winter erupted yesterday as Downing Street accused the BBC of deliberately distorting coverage of a survey of health authorities carried out by the Radio 4 Today programme.

Rising tensions over the the capacity of the NHS to cope this winter erupted yesterday as Downing Street accused the BBC of deliberately distorting coverage of a survey of health authorities carried out by the Radio 4 Today programme.

Downing Street condemned the BBC's report of its survey, which claimed most health authorities feared this winter would be worse than last, as "an outrageous piece of journalism and hugely irresponsible". It accused the Today programme of omitting to broadcast key findings from its poll, including the fact that 71 of the 81 health authorities surveyed believed they were in a better position this year to deal with a crisis.

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, sent an angry letter to Tony Hall, chief executive of BBC News, in which he claimed the programme had committed a "clear breach" of the BBC's guidelines for the proper and impartial reporting of surveys.

He said the programme failed to report that only one of the 81 authorities felt it was in a worse position than last year, and that 72 felt confident they had the staff and resources to cope with a repeat of last year's flu outbreak. Mr Campbell said: "The BBC obviously decided to ignore or downplay the answers to those questions which undermined the Today programme's desire for 'winter shock' headlines. It is both sad and totally unacceptable that the BBC's flagship programme is so blatantly practising this kind of journalism."

The dispute reflects the extreme sensitivity of ministers on the NHS. They are desperate to avoid headlines about a winter crisis in the run-up to the election, fearing that a repeat of last year would damage Labour's electoral prospects and limit the impact of the extra money it has injected.

Last year, thousands of operations were cancelled and hospitals were forced to turn patients away as they struggled to cope with the flu outbreak.

This year health authorities and NHS trusts have been bombarded with instructions from the NHS executive on the measures they are to take. The Government has earmarked £630m to provide extra beds, recruit more nurses and pay for patients to be treated in the private sector to ease the pressures; and every health authority has been ordered to draw up a plan for coping with the expected surge in demand in the coming months.

The BBC survey, which received 81 responses from the 123 health authorities, was reported differently on the corporation's website which said health authorities expected to face the same pressures this winter "but believe they will cope better this time around". It said 43 authorities had planned to cancel routine surgery or had made sure it was not scheduled over the busy Christmas period.

Adding to the Government's woes, the National Care Homes Association warned yesterday that hospital beds could be blocked by elderly patients this winter because of a shortage of nursing home places. Some 760 nursing and residential homes, mainly in the South-east, closed in the year to last April with the loss of 15,000 beds, as owners faced with staff shortages and dwindling revenue took advantage of high property prices and sold up.

The association said it was "on the edge of a crisis" and demanded an extra £50 a week per patient, on top of the average £320 for a nursing home place and £220 for a residential home place, paid by theGovernment to keep the homes open.

Paul Burstow, Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said "Ministers have been aware of this looming crisis for well over a year. A succession of inadequate funding settlements from central government has forced local authorities to squeeze fees. Fewer nursing homes means blocked beds and more trolleys in corridors this winter."

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