The number of people going to A&E departments in the UK has plummeted by almost half in just a month as the NHS grapples with the coronavirus crisis.
Statistics from around 50 hospitals show the number of emergency visits fell 43 per cent – from 104,251 to just 58,447 – in the last week of March compared to the first.
Waiting times are shorter than they’ve been in at least six months and demand for inpatient beds is falling, too, according to a report seen by MailOnline.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine, which collected the data, said people may be avoiding hospitals out of fear they will catch or spread the coronavirus.
But medics said A&Es are still open for business and people must continue to ask for medical help if they believe they or their child is seriously ill.
Doctors for children, in particular, say they are concerned that parents might brush off illnesses or avoid going to hospital because they don’t want to burden the NHS.
It comes as more than 38,000 people have now tested positive for the coronavirus in the UK and at least 3,605 have died since the outbreak began in late February.
Data from 50 hospitals around the UK shows that the number of people going to A&E plummeted in March amid the country’s coronavirus crisis
Doctors fear people are staying away from A&E departments because they’re afraid they will catch the coronavirus while they’re there (Pictured: A member of NHS staff at St Thomas’ Hospital in London)
In an average week in March in 2018 and 2019, NHS hospitals in England saw around 530,000 emergency attendances between them.
This suggests a nationwide drop of 43 per cent could mean a quarter of a million fewer people went to A&E in the last week of March, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to stay at home in a speech on March 23.
While this will have relieved pressure on overworked emergency departments, there are fears people are taking genuine health concerns less seriously.
Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM), which represents A&E doctors, said medics fear people are avoiding hospitals.
Dr Henderson said: ‘We are worried that some patients, and particularly some parents, are delaying seeking healthcare advice because they are understandably concerned that they might be overburdening the health service, or fear that they or their child might catch the virus by going to the doctor.
‘But it is really important that people with potentially serious conditions still access healthcare.
‘Delaying going to hospital for something such as appendicitis, heart attack or complications of pregnancy may lead to bigger and avoidable problems both for the individual and for the health service.’
The RCEM’s statistics do not cover every hospital in the UK but a ‘representative sample’ of around 50 from a total of more than 150 across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
They are a part of the college’s Winter Flow Project, which has been tracking NHS performance over the winter months since 2015.
Its report last year did not include the same data for comparison, but NHS England figures show that there are usually more A&E attendances in March than in November, December, January or February.
NHS Providers, which represents hospitals all over the country, said the RCEM figures were a ‘guide’ rather than official statistics, but people might now be thinking harder about whether they really need to go to A&E.
Deputy chief executive, Saffron Cordery, told MailOnline: ‘If, as these figures suggest, A&E attendances are falling sharply, it may be that people are thinking carefully before going in.
DOCTORS FEAR CHILDREN COULD GET SERIOUSLY ILL IF PARENTS AVOID A&E
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said it is concerned children could get seriously ill if their parents avoid taking them to A&E out of fear of catching the coronavirus or adding strain on the NHS.
Children are known to be more resilient to COVID-19, the RCPCH said, so parents might be concerned about their child passing on the infection without knowing they’ve got it.
And they said symptoms of the coronavirus may be similar to other, serious illnesses. Meningitis, for example, causes a fever – one of the tell-tale signs of COVID-19.
Parents should use the ‘traffic light system’ for working out how seriously ill their child is, and refer to NHS guidance about fevers in children.
Dr Mike Linney, registrar at the RCPCH, said: ‘Some children will get COVID-19 but many won’t or won’t be very unwell even if they do.
‘If you are worried about your child – even if their symptoms sound like COVID – it could be something else.
‘The chances are, it won’t be serious but, although the NHS is at the busiest time in its history, we would rather you “bothered us” with your concerns so that we can reassure you or give your child the help they may need.’
‘That may be because they are heeding the instruction to stay at home unless it is absolutely necessary.
‘For some, who can self-care or get the help they need through other routes, this approach makes sense.
‘However, it’s vital that patients requiring emergency care understand their NHS A&E is still there for them.’
As well as fewer people turning up at A&E, the hospitals in the RCEM’s data saw waiting times get shorter.
81 per cent of patients at the hospitals were being seen within four hours at the end of March, compared with around 73 per cent at the beginning of the month.
This figure was the highest it had been for six months for those hospitals. The England average is 82.8 per cent.
And fewer beds were having to be kept open for patients, likely because of the NHS’s widespread cancellations of routine operations such as hip and knee replacements.
One in five of the hospitals (10) had reduced the number of beds they had open by between 15 and 20 per cent while a further 48 per cent (24) toned down capacity between 5 and 15 per cent.
Hospitals can adapt the number of beds they have open in line with demand – if there are fewer patients, they need fewer beds.
The number of bed-blockers – patients well enough to go home but still in hospital because they couldn’t get proper care at home – plunged from around 2,000 to just 1,383 in a fortnight as the NHS was instructed to send home as many patients as possible.
Hospitals are closing beds because of a drop in demand as the NHS was told to cancel as many non-urgent operations as it could. RCEM figures found 20 per cent of the hospitals in its data reduced bed capacity by 15 to 20 per cent
Waiting times got shorter in the 50 A&E departments during March, with the proportion of patients being seen within four hours of arriving increasing to 81 per cent – the highest for six months
The number of bed-blocking patients – those healthy enough to leave but still in hospital – plunged as well after officials told the NHS to send as many patients home as they could
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which represents doctors who treat children, said it is concerned that sick children are not being seen.
Some have reported that children have become seriously ill or even died because they have had advanced illnesses by the time they got to a doctor, but it is unclear whether this is linked to the coronavirus crisis.
President of the RCPCH, Professor Russell Viner, said: ‘During the coronavirus crisis, parents and carers up and down the country have been doing the right thing by keeping children with minor ailments at home and we thank you for your help.
‘But if your child is very unwell, we want to see them – we don’t want you to wait and we don’t want you to worry. Get in touch with your GP or call 111.’