What does it mean for a hospital to declare a critical incident?

Staff shortages and rising admissions put hospitals under extraordinary pressure

Liam James
Thursday 06 January 2022 01:35
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Boris Johnson announced that the UK is extending Plan B restrictions

More than 20 hospital trusts around the country have declared critical incidents amid “extreme and unprecedented” Covid-related staff shortages.

The number of people in hospital with Covid had by Wednesday risen to the highest it had been since February last year.

And the latest figure for Covid-related hospital admissions was up 83 per cent on the previous week.

Admissions are doubling around every nine days, with more than 15,000 Covid patients already in hospital in England alone.

Hospitals have been forced to delay even urgent treatment due to staffing issues meaning patients in need of heart or cancer surgery are being made to wait.

Chris Hopson, of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, warned the health service was ‘stretched like never before’.

What is a critical incident?

A critical incident is something that can be declared by an NHS trust facing extraordinary pressure. It tells staff, bosses and patients that the hospital will not be able to function as usual. Large numbers of staff being absent and a very high number of patients can force a critical incident, as has happened in recent days.

There are many other disruptions that could lead to a declaration. Leeds Teaching Hospitals in 2016 declared a critical incident due to an IT system crash that left it unable to report lab tests for nearly a week.

A critical incident can last hours, days or even weeks.

Will my surgery still go ahead?

Urgent surgeries are now being delayed, Heart and cancer surgeries are among those affected.

NHS England has yet to tell trusts they can stand down urgent operations. But the president of the Intensive Care Society, Dr Stephen Webb, told The Independent that cardiac and cancer procedures were being postponed due to shortages of staff.

Dr Webb said “virtually all” Intensive Care Units were struggling and many were having to limit access to patients in need of urgent surgery.

What about a non-urgent appointment?

Many non-urgent surgeries and appointments are also being delayed. Some trusts have said they will contact patients directly to inform them of delays.

Will emergency services operate as usual?

Some ambulance services have been disrupted by staff shortages. The North East Ambulance Service (NEAS)has asked patients with “potentially non-life-threatening” calls to be taken to hospital by a relative if an ambulance.

One-quarter of Northern Ireland's ambulance service were off work by Wednesday and lower priority patients were being advised to make their own way to hospital.

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