Highest number of people this winter were forced to wait in back of ambulances during Christmas week in England
Record numbers of patients were forced to wait in the backs of ambulances last week as hospitals in England struggled to cope with demand for medical treatment as the NHS’s winter crisis began in earnest.
In all, 16,900 people – the highest number this winter – were stuck in the backs of ambulances waiting to enter an A&E unit to be assessed and treated in the week from Christmas Day to New Year’s Eve.
Of those, 4,700 – again the most in any week this winter – had to endure a delay of at least an hour, according to NHS England’s latest figures, published on Thursday, on how the service is performing under the extra pressure that winter brings.
Theresa May, on a visit to Frimley Park hospital in Surrey, apologised for delays to operations and hospital admissions, saying she recognised it was difficult for somebody who had had their operation postponed, and hoped procedures could be rescheduled “as soon as possible”.
The prime minister said: “I know it’s difficult, I know it’s frustrating, I know it’s disappointing for people, and I apologise.”
Her visit came after it emerged that tens of thousands of planned operations could be delayed for at least a month as the NHS deals with the most urgent cases.
Hospitals in England also set another unwanted record last week with A&E units forced to divert patients elsewhere because they could not cope a total of 39 times – the highest number this winter.
The Liberal Democrats said the figures showed that the NHS’s winter crisis was deepening and blamed government underfunding of the health service. More than 20 NHS acute hospital trusts across England have been forced to declare a “black alert” – an official distress signal – in recent days.
“These figures show the NHS crisis is worsening, with thousands of patients being stuck in ambulances outside A&Es, and hospitals suffering from a severe lack of beds,” said Vince Cable, the Lib Dem leader.
“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.”
Ministers should implement his party’s plan for an extra penny on income tax to raise an extra £6bn to improve the struggling health and social care systems, he added.
What are your experiences of the NHS this winter?
We will be monitoring the situation in hospitals over the next few months and want to hear your experiences of the NHS this winter. We are keen to hear from healthcare professionals as well as patients about the situation. Have operations been cancelled? Has pressure led to certain wards being closed? How are staff coping? Help us document what is going on across the UK.
Bed occupancy also rose again to worryingly high levels after it had dropped in the run-up to Christmas, when some patients were discharged so they could be at home. In all, 91.7% of general and acute hospital beds were full last week, up from 90.9% the week before and well above the 85% limit that hospitals are meant to stick to in order to reduce the risk of infections such as MRSA and C difficile and of patients suffering poor care.
In the seven days to 31 December there were also the largest number of calls in a week to the NHS 111 telephone advice service. In all, 480,400 people rang seeking help, 21% more than in the previous week.
The only good news for the health service in the latest statistics was that the average number of beds closed because of norovirus, the winter vomiting bug, fell to 880 from 1,026 the week before. However, NHS England’s summary of the latest situation stressed: “HThere has been a marked increase in recent weeks as to the number of reports of norovirus and they are now comparable with the five-year average for this week.”
Flu is also becoming a problem for the NHS. There were seven flu-related deaths in the week to 24 December and 61 people admitted either to intensive care or a high dependency unit because of flu. Twenty-three people had died of flu in the last 11 weeks, NHS England said.
On New Year’s Eve 12 hospital trusts reported 100% bed occupancy, the biggest total for several weeks.
They included the Hillingdon hospitals in London, Basildon and Thurrock university hospitals, and the Queen Elizabeth hospital in King’s Lynn.
Growing strains on the NHS will mean planned operations are delayed for at least a month as staff sift through the most urgent cases.
The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, apologised to patients in England on Wednesday for the wave of cancellations, saying it was “absolutely not what I want”.