Hospitals warn of winter overload

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The Independent Online
NINETY PER CENT of hospital trusts will face serious problems this winter, a survey revealed yesterday.

Emergency patients will suffer delays in A&E departments and waiting periods for some treatments are likely to rise, according to the NHS Confederation, which represents 90 per cent of health authorities and trusts in the UK.

The confederation warnedthat despite plans to deal with more patients this winter there was "only so much" trusts could handle.

The Government has pledged an extra pounds 21bn for the NHS in the Comprehensive Spending Review but it will not be spent until April 1999.

"We will not see the benefits of the Government's injection of new money into the NHS until next winter," said Stephen Thornton, the chief executive of the confederation.

The very mild winter last year meant that trusts copedwith the increase in admissions between November and March. Emergency admissions have risen in recent years, by 2 to 4 per cent a year.

The survey revealed that if this winter was considered "normal" - that is, if the weather is not particularly bad - there would still be a 90 per cent rise in bed occupancies.

A spokeswoman for the Royal College of Nursing said: "Staff shortages mean extra pressure will be placed on nurses this year, and the overall quality of care will not be the same. For instance, there could be delays for patients waiting on trolleys to be seen or admitted, which is unacceptable."

While two-thirds of the trusts said it was likely that waiting-list targets would be achieved, a high proportion said there would be an increase in trolley waits and in waiting times for some patients should there be a "normal" winter.

Three-quarters thought it likely or very likely emergency patients would experience delays in A&E or medical admissions units before being allocated a bed.

Sixty-seven per cent said waiting times for some patients would go up.

The confederation's Mr Thornton said: "We must challenge the huge expectations that all the new NHS money will be available for new services or to meet pay demands, when maintaining a basic quality service must come first.

"These problems happen every winter but the Government has said we now have a quality threshold in the NHS where better outcomes for patients are expected. So thismust be the last year when the NHS is put under pressure by even a normal winter."

The Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, said: "Last winter the NHS introduced new procedures to make sure they planned better and worked with social services better than ever before. For the first time in years, they avoided a winter crisis. I am sure the confederation's members will be keen to do everything they can to cope this winter.

"It won't be easy but both the resources and special arrangements are in place."

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