Hospital patients are routinely being treated in emergency beds and left on makeshift wards in corridors, doctors have warned.
The British Medical Association said thousands of temporary beds – kept in reserve for major winter crises or emergencies like terror attacks – are being used on a daily basis.
There is no designated space for the extra beds in hospitals, meaning severely ill patients are crammed into corridors and other makeshift wards.
Beds for patients recovering from surgery are also being repurposed as emergency beds – forcing the cancellation of hundreds of routine operations, the doctors’ union warned.
The British Medical Association said thousands of temporary beds – kept in reserve for major winter crises or emergencies like terror attacks – are being used on a daily basis
Many of the ‘escalation beds’ are old beds that have been mothballed but are kept in storage for use in during winter months, when more patients are admitted.
However, a survey by the BMA found that thousands of escalation beds are consistently being used for months as hospitals are unable to cope with soaring demand.
Nine in ten NHS hospital trusts were using emergency beds last month – which the BMA said proves the health service is ‘in a state of year-round crisis’.
Hospitals have to employ expensive agency workers to staff the additional beds, at a huge cost.
On March 3 this year there were at least 3,428 escalation beds in operation across England, and on May 1 there were 1,637 escalation beds still in use.
The data showed more emergency beds were in use last month than in January, at the height of winter pressures.
Figures were only provided by 80 out of 134 NHS trusts, suggesting the true figure is much higher.
The BMA said 10,000 more beds were needed to provide a safe level of care and experts warned hospitals are ‘full to bursting’.
Dr Rob Harwood, from the BMA, said: ‘It cannot be right that the NHS is having to use these measures almost permanently.
‘The use of escalation beds is a sign that trusts are at a critical stage and are unable to cope with demand with their current bed stock.
‘Most worryingly, the intense pressure on beds can result in patients being placed on beds in corridors or in bits of other facilities, sometimes cramping treatment areas and causing unacceptable stress to the patient and their families.’
Dr Harwood added that wards which have been designated for patients recovering from routine surgery were now being used to accommodate emergency beds, forcing the cancellation of operations.
He added that procedures for patients needing day-care or minor operations were being cancelled as their beds were no longer available.
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said hospital bosses should only increase bed capacity if they have more nurses staff to care for the people in them.
‘If they don’t, it cannot be done safely. Full-to-bursting hospitals, low on staff, are not places people want to be treated or work.
‘NHS managers can’t make good decisions on bed use without certainty around staffing. Until that is resolved, we’ll see more chaos on wards. We need a properly-funded staffing plan backed up by legislation to make Ministers accountable for safe and effective staffing.’
The NHS is currently short of 100,000 staff, including 40,000 nurses.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘The use of escalation beds is yet another sign that hospitals are struggling to cope under continued pressure. We know this is compromising patient care.
‘The Tories and, in Coalition, the Lib Dems, have run down the NHS and imposed the biggest funding squeeze in its history.
‘Ministers should be ashamed that years of cuts to beds, to social care and to funding have led to some of the worst bed occupancy rates in hospitals.’
Bed occupancy rates across hospitals in England have reached record highs in the past two years.
It peaked at 96.1 per cent in February this year, despite guidance from the National Audit Office that occupancy should not exceed 85 per cent to maintain safe patient care.