NHS in Crisis: Leeds - Casualty ward is `bursting at seams'

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BRITAIN'S BIGGEST NHS trust criticised GPs last night for taking long Christmas and New Year breaks, which have caused a city hospital almost to "burst at the seams".

As patients waited on trolleys for admission yesterday to St James's University Hospital, Leeds, managers said they were furious with family doctors for closing their surgeries for four days over Christmas. They said that the GPs' deputising services had failed to cope, and as a result the 999 service was swamped with calls.

"Patients have bypassed GP services and come straight to us," said Bob Schofield, spokesman for St James's, which merged recently with Leeds General Infirmary.

"That is why we have this crisis. It's not because of any flu epidemic because there is no flu epidemic. There is just a flu-like virus, which lays low the elderly and vulnerable but which younger, fitter people get over in three to four days.

"When all this is over, we will have to take a long hard look at what happened to primary care, to social services and to community services over the Christmas period.

"Why did so many people end up in hospital? We will have to learn the lessons.

"In 1997, because Christmas Day was on a Thursday, at least surgeries opened on the Saturday, but this year they did not open for four days. It meant that illness built up a head of steam, which became very difficult to deal with."

Mr Schofield said that over 6,000 people had attended the hospital's accident and emergency department between Christmas Eve and 3 January, a 50 per cent increase over the same period last year. However, only 1,500 had been admitted, meaning that most of the rest could have been seen by GPs, had they been available.

"We have only coped thanks to the heroic efforts of the staff. Some patients have suffered. The longest wait was by a patient two days ago who was on a trolley for 19 hours."

The crisis, he said, had led to the cancellation of non- emergency surgery. Given that the outbreak of the flu-like virus is expected to continue for another week, the hospital is unlikely to return to normal until the end of the month.

Jason Warriner, a nurse with the trust, said: "It's been a very hard few days, the toughest ever, especially with problems recruiting nurses and staff illness. The crisis is really wearing down morale."