At one point patients in the capital were facing transfers to as far away as Yorkshire and Somerset in order to get an intensive care bed.
At the University Hospital in Aintree, Merseyside, no intensive care bed could be found for a critically ill woman because there was nowhere suitable to move a less seriously ill patient. Staff prepared an operating theatre recovery suite as a temporary intensive care annexe for patients.
When a bed became free at lunchtime the relief was tangible. "It's not so mad at the moment," said an intensive care nurse at the hospital.
Dr Simon Rogers, one of the locum intensive care consultants at Aintree, said the hospital had a high turnover of intensive care patients because it "imported" patients other hospitals could not accommodate, but staff were "at breaking point". He said: "On Monday night we were down to one bed. The nearest bed to us was Chorley, and that was the only bed in the North-west available."
Routine operations were being cancelled to cope with the numbers of patients needing intensive care treatment.
"From an efficiency point of view I'm sure the politicians and managers would want 100 per cent occupancy but if there's no slack at times there will be no beds," said Dr Rogers. "It's an unpredictable game."
Doctors across the country warned that there could be a serious shortage of emergency beds over the millennium weekend, as intensive care units failed to meet the demand.
Dr Stuart Withington, director of intensive care at the Royal London Hospital, said: "I was told today that the nearest intensive care beds were in Yeovil, Sheffield, the Isle of Wight and Doncaster. These patients are too sick to travel miles in the back of an ambulance.
"It is a logistic problem and is also a very dangerous situation, which is not fair on the medical staff or the patients and their families. How would you like it if your nearest and dearest needs intensive care treatment and is carted off 200 miles away where for many it would be very stressful and impossible to visit them?" He said that he had been forced to treat intensive care patients on normal wards.
John Hutton, the Health minister, admitted there was "acute pressure" on intensive care units. "This is a very tight situation," he said, but insisted that patients were getting the treatment they needed.
"We are going into this winter with a better background of planning, with additional capacity in the service to try to respond to what are seasonal pressures on the NHS, and I think doctors and nurses around the country are responding very, very well," he said.Reuse content