Capacity at NHS hospitals has been stretched more than ever over Christmas with fewer beds available across England, despite the Prime Minister claiming extra funding and extensive planning meant it was better prepared.
Average bed occupancy across all trusts jumped to 91.7 per cent between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve compared to 90 per cent occupancy in the same week last year, The Independent’s analysis shows.
The Prime Minister yesterday talked down the idea of a crisis, and said “The NHS has been better prepared for this winter than ever before, we have put extra funding in.”
“There are more beds available across the system,” she added.
But today’s figures show bed availability has deteriorated, despite the annual ritual of opening thousands of “escalation” beds in preparation for the holiday period.
This also remains well above the recommended safe operating levels of 85 per cent occupancy, above which hospital infections and “bed crises” become more common.
Emergency care chiefs had previously warned The Independent that Christmas Day usually provides a lull, but this year it had felt like “just another very bad day”.
Dr Chris Moulton, vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said at the time: “There’s no doubt about it, this year seems to be worse.
“Christmas Day does not seem to have been any better than a normal day. It’s now just another very bad day, that’s unusual.”
The latest weekly winter update from NHS England shows this to be correct as 87 per cent of beds were full, compared to 84 per cent last year.
While on New Year’s Eve occupancy had risen to 94 per cent, compared to 92 per cent last year, despite hundreds more beds being open.
The same figures show that the number of acutely ill patients forced to wait more than half an hour outside A&E departments while waiting for a bed jumped to 16,900, nearly 5,000 on the week before.
The Independent revealed how these delays, and “inappropriate 999 calls” over the break had forced one region to send nurses as first responders to patients.
Despite this, the figures show calls to the non-emergency 111 NHS number hit their highest levels since the service launched.
Nearly half a million people called for medical advice and information on what NHS services were available, up from the previous record of 457,100 in the same period last year.
An NHS England spokesperson said: “Hospitals, GPs, ambulances and other frontline NHS services have been extremely busy between Christmas and New Year, reporting higher levels of respiratory illness and some indications of increasing patient illness severity and flu.”
They add that this increased pressure led to the National Emergency Pressures Panel (NEPP) recommending this week that all non-urgent care, including things like hip operations, should be suspended until February at least.
NHS England’s acute care lead Professor Keith Willet said yesterday that the emergency measures could well be extended a third time, but he rejected the suggestion the NHS was in “crisis”.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt apologised for any one affected by cancellations but said the guidance meant cancellations were taking place in a “planned way”, unlike last year.
However The Independent spoke to two people cancelled, cancelled at very short notice.
Oxford GP Dr Dave Triffitt was due to have heart valve surgery yesterday and found out with less than 24 hours notice, and after having rearranged six weeks of appointments to recuperate, it was cancelled.
“That seems pretty short notice to me,” he said.
NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts said the guidance on cancelling operations was “sensible” as the health service had to focus on patients who need resources most.
Its director of policy and strategy, Saffron Cordery, said of today’s numbers: ”The figures reflect what we are hearing from the NHS front line that despite planning more meticulously than ever before, the level of demand for services means severe pressures remain across the health and care system.”
While the Liberal Democrat’s leader, Vince Cable, said the figures were a sign of a crisis growing worse by the day.
“Every day seems to bring yet more bad news about the state of the health service. The blame lies firmly at the government’s door.
“Ministers refused to provide the funding top NHS officials said was necessary and now patients are paying the price.”
While health economists said the NHS was still in the early stages of winter with pressures from seasonal flu and norovirus yet to peak.
Professor John Appleby, chief economist of the Nuffield Trust, said: “The sobering reality is that winter for the NHS has hardly started.
“The service is likely to face another three months of exceptional need for care, and it is starting from a precarious position.
“There is an underlying mismatch between the capacity to deliver care and the level of care patients require.”
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