The annual health service crisis has started three months early, with hospitals reporting a shortage of emergency beds even though winter is still weeks away.

The annual health service crisis has started three months early, with hospitals reporting a shortage of emergency beds even though winter is still weeks away.

Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, has been urged to act after a string of serious problems caused by staff shortages and a lack of cash.

The Chancellor poured £630m into the NHS this year - including an extra £150m in May to pay for more critical care beds - to help the NHS avoid a damaging crisis in the run-up to the general election.

However, the Independent on Sunday has learned that the crisis has already hit some hospitals, months before the usual rush of emergency cases in January.

GPs have been told not to refer patients to Oxford's John Radcliffe hospital because of fears that it is unable to treat them. They have been directed to send emergency referrals elsewhere.

Wycombe Hospital in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, had to close its accident and emergency unit for 48 hours at the end of last month. Again, no emergency referrals from local GPs could be taken.

And during the week of the Labour Party conference, the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton had no intensive care beds available. A spokesman confirmed that there was a lack of intensive care beds "from time to time".

Lord Hunt, the health minister in the Lords, told peers last week: "No one can guarantee that there will not be difficulties in the health service this winter. It is simply not possible to solve every bed problem or every staff shortage by then."

But that will come as little comfort to Labour backbenchers preparing to defend their seats, who will be dismayed that, in spite of the preparations, GPs are already being told not to send their patients to some hospitals.

Healthcare professionals are predicting that other parts of Britain will be affected.

A spokesman for the British Medical Association said: "It is likely that this level of pressure is replicated in other parts of the country because there is a chronic crisis. Hospitals run so close to full capacity all the time that even a very small surge in demand can throw things off course. Hospitals are living a rather hand-to-mouth existence all of the year round."

Ministers set up an NHS winter strategy team to prepare detailed plans to prevent patients being left on trolleys and dangerously ill cases being ferried from hospital to hospital in search of beds. All NHS staff are being urged to take flu jabs to prevent absenteeism hitting the health service.

But the BMA said the new money had yet to hit front-line services and there were growing fears that it might not be possible to find enough staff to meet requirements.

"Although managers would like to recruit more staff they aren't sure they are physically out there to be recruited," said the spokesman.

Last week research published by public sector union Unison revealed that 40 per cent of nurses believed the crisis in nursing had reduced the quality of care given to patients. Nor, it suggested, were things improving - eight out of 10 nurses said they had thought of quitting the NHS because of poor pay or low morale.

Shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox said yesterday: "What was a winter shortage is now a year-round shortage. It goes to prove that despite being halfway through the fourth year in office the NHS is deteriorating under Labour."

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