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NHS England warns London could run out of critical care beds within weeks

Exclusive: Health care bosses raise alarm with infections ‘sharply on the rise’ across the capital

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Friday 18 December 2020 21:48

London will run out of hospital beds within weeks, NHS England bosses have said.

The care body warned that if coronavirus admissions continue at their current rate, the city will be short of 600 critical care beds and 1,500 general hospital beds by 5 January.

It was revealed to hospital bosses from across the city in a webinar on Thursday night and comes after the capital experienced a sharp rise in coronavirus cases and hospital admissions – with patients needing critical care increasing by almost 9 per cent in a day earlier this week.

Hospitals across the capital have started to cancel operations and are redeploying nurses and doctors to cope with an expected increase in demand.

At Barking Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals Trust a major internal incident has been ongoing since Tuesday with accident and emergency staff told they will have to assess and treat patients in the back of ambulances.

A message to staff seen by The Independent told A&E doctors there was no alternative as other hospitals were also under pressure and ambulances could not be diverted.

Junior doctors at North Middlesex Hospital have been told they will be redeployed to help look after patients on medical wards as part of plans by the hospital to cope with rising numbers of patients.

Operations have also been cancelled at Northwick Park Hospital, Whipps Cross Hospital and the Royal London Hospital. Major incidents have also been declared at several other hospitals this week.

The latest NHS data shows London had 2,726 patients with coronavirus in hospital on Friday, equivalent of 13 per cent of the capital’s beds. This is more than half of the peak seen on 8 April, when there were 5,175 Covid-19 patients in London.

Senior NHS managers have told The Independent this level of bed occupancy heading into the Christmas period, when restrictions will be lifted for five days, will be unsustainable in the event of any major spike.

During the webinar on Thursday night, NHS England spelt out the surge it was expecting to see in the coming weeks.

The analysis has been described as an approximate estimate of what the capital could be facing after Christmas, traditionally one of the busiest times for the NHS.

Hospitals are scrambling to open up their “surge” wards to try and create extra capacity but managers and senior clinicians warned staffing remained the biggest risk with more than 10,000 care workers absent on Friday, with more than 43 per cent linked to either Covid sickness or isolation requirements.

An NHS London spokesperson said: “Covid inpatient numbers across the capital are currently below the peak that London saw in the April first wave, but they are sharply on the rise as infections across the capital have continued to spike.

“So although we are opening extra capacity it is vital that Londoners do everything possible to reduce social transmission and cut the number of new infections, which otherwise inevitably result in more avoidable deaths."  

At Queen’s Hospital, in Romford, part of the Barking Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals Trust, doctors in A&E were told they would have to cope with the queuing ambulances outside the A&E.

Staff were told that due to “extremely high pressures across the sector” diverting ambulances to other hospitals was not an option.

It added: “Under these extremely difficult circumstances we are asking you to do the best we can for our patients. It is important that patients are assessed and prioritised for treatments and admissions based on clinical need. We do understand that on some occasions initial assessment and intervention may have to take place in the ambulance vehicle.”

The trust has told doctors they will be fully supported adding: “We would like to assure you that we understand that such assessments and interventions cannot be carried out the same standard as in the ED department.”

London has seen the largest rise in infections of coronavirus in the past week and an NHS briefing on Wednesday said there were only 49 critical care beds available after the number of patients needing urgent treatment grows. 

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