More beds in care units for critically ill children

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The number of intensive-care beds for critically ill children is to be raised by 20 per cent over the next year, Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, is to announce later this week.

At the same time, the eight National Health Service regions are to set up a bed bureau by next winter so that doctors have only to make one call to find the nearest available bed when their local unit is full.

The measures - plus a new drive to train more paediatric intensive-care nurses - follow the critical shortage of paediatric intensive-care beds revealed last winter when hospitals repeatedly had to turn away seriously ill children.

Mr Dorrell will announce the outcome of a report he ordered from the NHS Executive after the death of 10-year-old Nicholas Geldard last December.

He collapsed in Stockport, was admitted to its infirmary and then transferred to Stepping Hill Hospital and Hope Hospitals before being ferried, already brain dead, across the Pennines to Leeds after hospitals in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield were unable to take him because their intensive- care beds were full.

In a survey by the Independent in January, hospitals in Leeds, London, Brighton, Bristol and Sheffield and Nottingham all said they had been forced to turn children away, in some cases on dozens of occasions. A count by the Labour Party last month, whose findings the Department of Health did not challenge, suggested 300 children had been turned away in the first four months of the year.

Little or no extra central funding is being made available to improve the situation, but Mr Dorrell is expected to announce that NHS trusts have plans to create another 55 intensive-care and high-dependency beds over the next year, a 20 per cent increase over the current 249.

Hospitals, however, still face major worries over how to staff them, reporting either difficulties in recruitment or absolute shortages of intensive-care nurses. Funds for more training will be made available and Yvonne Moores, the Chief Nursing Officer, is to head a task force charged with identifying why too few nurses train in the speciality and then stay with it.

The Royal College of Nursing has criticised trusts for refusing to support the training and for not giving nurses time off to study for the qualifications needed.

How many of the new beds will be available by the winter, when demand for them usually peaks, is not yet clear, but ministers believe a bed bureau - already operated in some areas, such as Birmingham - will make it far easier for vacancies to be located.

Mr Dorrell's insistence that the extra beds - which cost around pounds 250,000 a year to run - should be provided by the NHS adjusting its priorities within existing resources is likely to draw fire.

And the creation of a bed bureau for paediatric cases is likely to renew demands for similar arrangements for adult intensive care and for emergency beds for the mentally ill. Without action at ministerial or regional level, doctors say, such arrangements are almost impossible to set up.