NHS in Crisis: National View - Flu exposes chronic staff shortages

THE PRESSURE exerted on the NHS by the flu outbreak is being caused by problems dating back years, health managers said yesterday.

The real crisis is a staff shortage, caused by an erosion in pay and compounded by fewer beds. Sydney and Peking flu have only served to bring the crisis to the public's attention.

Britain is far from a flu epidemic. Stephen Thornton, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, representing health authorities and trusts, said they faced the problem of flu most years. The unique factor now was the staff shortage.

There is an estimated 8,000 shortfall of nurses, and a lack of paramedics, physiotherapists and speech therapists. "I can't remember a time in the last few years when it has been so difficult right across the country. That is the special ingredient," he said. "The Government has given us extra money, but in some parts of the country we can't spend it. We just can't recruit the staff."

Kingston Hospital, in Kingston upon Thames, is one of many to have looked abroad. The first of nearly 50 nurses from the Philippines started work there this week.

Britain is not producing enough nurses: last year the number of trainee places exceeded applicants. And there is a difficulty dating from the early Nineties, when the number of training places was halved in a recession.

A spokesman for New Cross Hospital, Wolverhampton, said: "Staff have been working double shifts, 16 hours at a time, throughout the Christmas and New Year period."

Many nurses have left the profession because they can earn more elsewhere. "Nurses tell us that fair pay is the number-one factor which would encourage them to stay in nursing," said Christine Hancock, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.

Bed occupancy rates are another factor in the crisis. Mr Thornton said: "Hospitals have been working increasingly to full capacity all year round. There is nothing more inefficient than an empty bed, and occupancy rates are running at 90 per cent plus. But then you don't need very much of an increase in demand to create real problems."

Philip Monk, a public health consultant in Leicestershire health authority, said there was a "very high level of consultation on influenza-like illnesses". Some really were flu, others were respiratory syncitial virus, which, may make asthma worse and raise temperatures.

A third factor was the peaking of the regular four-yearly cycle in the incidence of mycoplasma, a bug that causes chest infections. "A lot of people are very acutely ill," he said. "There are a phenomenal number of people calling for the GP, which means GPs are taking longer to get to them and people are going down to hospital, which isn't helping the situation. People are trying to find a short cut ... when there are no short cuts to be had."

Douglas Fleming, of the infectious diseases monitoring unit at the Royal College of General Practitioners, said most calls were unnecessary, and accused the many "worried well" of selfishness.

Hugh Lamont, spokesman for the North West Region Ambulance Services, covering Manchester and Liverpool, said: "The system was overrun. The next stage for people was to dial 999 and call an ambulance. The hospitals were acting as clearing houses for primary care and also dealing with the more serious cases." At Walsall Manor Hospital, in the West Midlands, 278 emergency admissions were treated over four days last week, an increase of 100 on the same week in the previous year.

All non-urgent operations in the Sandwell Health Authority area of the Black Country have been cancelled because of the outbreak. It has spread across the West Midlands: at a Wolverhampton hospital, 100 people waiting for treatment were put on stand-by as doctors struggled to cope with demand from flu sufferers. In south Wales, hospitals were under growing pressure. The only part of Britain to have escaped is the South-west. Scotland has been relatively mildly affected.

n A pounds 1m national advertising campaign was launched yesterday to recruit blood donors. The hard-hitting adverts are in response to recent statistics, which showed that less than 6 per cent of the eligible population gives blood.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific