Health minister Philip Dunne claimed bed occupancy was below safe levels “on Christmas Eve” when asked about pressures by Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, Devon – but this was the only day that has been true all winter.
Mr Dunne, who was Jeremy Hunt’s deputy as minister of state for health until he lost his position in this week’s reshuffle, was asked to provide information on “the current bed-occupancy levels in the NHS in England”.
He said: “I can confirm to my honourable friend that, at Christmas Eve, the bed occupancy rate was 84.2 per cent, below the target of 85 per cent that we set going into this particular winter period.
“Of course the rate fluctuates daily and I do not have the figures for the most recent days.”
Mr Dunne, at that time, had figures from 20 November to 31 December, with only four days around Christmas – when hospitals strive to discharge patients to their families – dipping below 90 per cent occupancy, although experts say running above 85 per cent is unsafe.
Dr Wollaston, who chairs the House of Commons Health Committee and has been calling for a cross-party effort to find solutions for the sustainable funding of the NHS, said on Twitter: “The table below shows why that is so disingenuous.
“Unless the scale of the problem is understood and openly discussed, we won’t get progress on the solution.”
An assessment by the House of Commons library agreed, saying: “As you can see, average occupancy across the country was below 90 per cent on only four days over this period, so the Christmas Eve occupancy of 84.2 per cent was indeed anomalous.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said the minister was simply highlighting a case of hardworking staff hitting the target, but Dr Wollaston told The Independent: “To present me, as chair of the Health Committee, with that number when I ask a serious question about bed occupancy, it isn’t right.
“We need government to demonstrate that they understand what the problem is – you can’t see how they can be working on a solution if they won’t accept the level of challenge.”
The latest occupancy figures, covering the first week of 2018, show that the 95 per cent of beds were full and a coalition of senior A&E doctors warned Theresa May that patients were “dying prematurely” in corridors because of pressures.
The Prime Minister and Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt have dismissed talk of an NHS winter crisis, saying the health is better prepared than ever and that 55,000 operations cancelled to put resources in A&E are “part of the plan”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “While recognising the significant pressure the NHS has come under this winter, the minister simply highlighted this statistic as an example of hardworking staff delivering on the 85% bed occupancy level they were asked to achieve during this winter.
"The Government is supporting the NHS this winter with an additional £437million as well as £1 billion extra social care funding this year.”
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