Jeremy Lauramce: Will the NHS run out of beds for critically ill children?

Share
Related Topics

The death of Nicholas Geldard still strikes fear into the hearts of children's specialists – and will be on the minds of ministers and chief medical officers as the UK prepares for what is likely to be its worst winter flu season for a generation.

In December 1995, 10-year old Nicholas, who had suffered a brain haemorrhage, was shunted between four hospitals in the north-west in a frantic search for an intensive care bed. His parents had to follow his ambulance across the Pennines in a blizzard before being told he was clinically dead.

Nicholas's death provoked an outcry (Harriet Harman, then MP for Peckham, said it was "hard to find words to express the sense of outrage and betrayal that everyone must feel") and was the catalyst for reform of how critically ill children were treated in the NHS. In the past decade, the number of intensive care beds for children has more than doubled to 600 and hospitals have 24-hour retrieval teams on standby to find the beds for the children who need them.

Yet paediatric intensive care remains one of the most high-pressure services in the NHS – and the most vulnerable to being overwhelmed by swine flu. The nightmare for doctors, ministers and health officials this winter would be a repeat of the Nicholas Geldard tragedy many times over.

NHS trusts have been preparing for a flu pandemic for three years, alerted by the Asian avian flu outbreak. Swine flu has surprised them because while it is mostly mild, it is targetting children. Last week, 169 children aged under five were hospitalised with the virus, a rate five times that for older age groups; 12 were in critical care.

In summer, this is manageable. Few other viruses are about and swine flu is the only show in town. But in winter, if flu is raging on top of other respiratory viruses that tend to keep intensive care units full – Respiratory Synctial Virus is the main culprit, along with noroviruses and adenoviruses – the situation may look very different.

Sir Liam Donaldson, England's chief medical officer, sought to reassure the public yesterday, promising extra capacity could be found, if necessary by cancelling routine operations (about half of paediatric intensive care beds are taken by children recovering from heart operations and the like).

The message from the consultants who run the units is gloomier. They experienced "huge" pressure over the past two winters and they view this coming one with trepidation. Many units have asked for more beds – few have been granted them, and if they were, they would still face the problem of staffing and equipping them. Intensive care nurses are highly skilled and hard to find and the range of equipment needed is enormous – ventilators must fit premature babies through to strapping teenagers.

The challenge is huge. The virus is targetting children and causing more severe illness in them than in others. How the paediatric intensive care service copes could turn out to be a touch stone for the handling of this pandemic.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently  

Shia LaBeouf to Luis Suárez: Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015