Bed crisis could split NHS, Labour says

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Health Editor

Labour stepped up pressure on the Government yesterday to act on emergency hospital admissions, claiming that the crisis would split the NHS.

Harriet Harman, Labour's spokeswoman on health, said that more than one in six NHS acute beds had been cut since 1990 and that 7,664 beds were cut in England last year alone.

In the past 15 years the number of NHS acute hospital beds had fallen by 28 per cent, while private beds had increased by 66 per cent, Ms Harman said. The worst-hit areas were South Thames and West Midlands, where one in five beds had been cut since 1990.

The British Medical Association had earlier called on the Government to rectify the "severe and prolonged bed crisis in the acute sector". The association has anecdotal evidence from around Britain showing that GPs cannot get seriously ill patients into hospital, while casualty departments - which are suffering severe staff shortages - are running at capacity. Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, has admitted in the Commons that the situation was a "matter for concern".

Ms Harman said: "The circumstances the BMA described will drive a further wedge of unfairness into the health service and accelerate the development of a two-tier system."

She warned that unless prompt action was taken hospitals would start opening their doors only to emergency cases and the patients of GP fund- holders who could pay up front for care. At the same time, more patients would go private.

Labour is calling on the Government to require hospitals to give priority to patients on their clinical need and not on the basis of who was purchasing their care. This would mean amending an NHS Executive letter from June 1991 allowing preferential treatment for patients of GP fund-holders in non- urgent cases. If Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, refused to issue a new letter, the Labour Party would draw up its own guidance circular and distribute it to hospitals, she said.

Examples of preferential treatment included King's College hospital, in south London, which had held extra sessions for fund-holding practices last year, and Pinderfields Hospitals NHS Trust, in West Yorkshire, which had screened orthopaedic patients on the basis of whether they were from fund-holding practices, she said.