Thousands of old people are occupying hospital beds even though they no longer need clinical care and would be better off looked after at home. But failures by health and social services managers to work together are preventing them being moved, leading to longer waiting lists and increased pressure on the hospital service.
Ministers have ordered officials to prepare the NHS to cope with the winter pressures when emergency cases rise. They are determined to avoid the situation of patients queueing on trollies and being turned away from hospitals because all their beds are full.
Evidence of the blocked beds is being gathered by Alan Langlands, chief executive of the NHS, who is touring the country with Sir Herbert Laming, chief inspector of social services. They have found that neighbouring health authorities with similar hospital provision and demographic profiles have very different experience of the problem.
A health department spokesman said: "Three years ago Birmingham had awful problems getting patients into hospital in winter. Then health and social services managers got together and last year, although they were under the same pressures as everyone else, it was not a problem. There are similar examples elsewhere."
Although social services departments face financial pressures at least as tight as the NHS, experience shows that collaboration with health authorities "demonstrably works", the spokesman said.
Mr Langlands and Sir Herbert are to submit a report on their findings to Paul Boateng, the health minister, at the end of their tour and a circular will be issued next month advising health authorities on the action they should take. Where problems cannot be sorted out, Frank Dobson, the health secretary, has said he will personally intervene.
Mr Dobson has said in recent speeches that hospitals are dangerous places for patients to be, because of the risk of infection, and that most elderly people would much rather recuperate at home.
Figures to be published today are expected to show a record 13 per cent increase in hospital waiting lists, the biggest single annual rise since the NHS began in 1948. The latest rise of 136,000 patients will take the total to 1.18 million. Ministers privately admit that Labour's manifesto pledge to cut waiting lists will not now be realised for several years.
Dr Evan Harris, liberal democrat health spokesman, accused the government of trying to shed responsibility for its inadequate spending plans. "To pin the blame on social services, the health secretary has invented a macabre Christmas game for the winter months - 'pass the patient'."
Mr Harris added: "Health professionals are aware that some elderly patients are staying in hospital too long, which is bad for them and not cost effective. But this is not a large-scale problem when compared to the beds crisis the NHS will be facing this winter.
"Both health authorities and social services are aware of the problems and are in constant communication over it. Neither have the funds to tackle it."Reuse content