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NHS hospitals are FULLER than they have been all winter amid a surge in cases of norovirus

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NHS hospitals are FULLER than they have been all winter amid a surge in cases of norovirus

  • Just 4.9 per cent of hospital beds were free for new patients last week
  • This should always be eight per cent of higher, according to the NHS’s target
  • Norovirus cases over Christmas and New Year were 31 per cent above average

Hospital beds in England were more full last week than they have been all winter, according to NHS statistics.

Fewer than five per cent of overnight beds were open to new patients between January 6 and 12.

A surge in norovirus cases added extra pressure to already-stretched hospitals, the NHS said, after the number of infections had been dropping for weeks.

Some 422 people were diagnosed and 11 hospital wards closed because of the winter vomiting bug in the last week of December and first week of January.

This was almost a third higher than average for the time of year and marked a turnaround after weekly diagnoses had been falling for a month.

A surge in the number of people infected with norovirus over the Christmas period coincided with NHS hospitals in England having fewer beds free than at almost any time over the past three years (stock image of norovirus) 

Figures released this morning showed 95.1 per cent of NHS inpatient beds were full in English hospitals last week.

It was the second busiest week of the past three years, with only the first week of February 2019 recording more full beds (95.2 per cent).

The NHS aims to keep the figure below 92 per cent, but surgeons say even that is too high for hospitals to operate safely, especially during winter.

Wards must keep space available for incoming patients – the fewer beds available inside a hospital, the longer patients wait in A&E to be admitted.

Winter is a particularly volatile time because illnesses like flu and norovirus can spread rapidly around a hospital and keep people in for longer or lead to beds getting shut down to stop the spread.

Norovirus cases in England for last week of December and first week of January were 31 per cent higher than average.

And the total number of infections since recording began in June is 26 per cent higher than usual.

An NHS spokesperson said: ‘Flu and norovirus continue to put additional pressure on NHS services, so it remains important that the public help staff by getting their flu jab and using the NHS 111 phone and online service for advice if they come down with a vomiting bug.

‘While the NHS has more beds open this winter than last, the continued increase in people’s need for care underlines the need for more beds and staff across hospital and community services.’


The NHS’s target of limiting hospitals to having 92 per cent of their beds full is too lenient, according to surgeons and emergency doctors.

In 2017 the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine raised concerns about the 92 per cent target.

It said this should be considerably lower and set at 85 per cent.

Beds need to be kept empty to cope with surges in emergency patients, which may occur during the winter, when admissions are always higher, or during illness outbreaks such as flu, or in the event of a terror attack or major accident.

Having too many beds full means it’s slower to admit patients through A&E which in turn leads to longer waits for emergency patients.

The RCEM’s president at the time, Taj Hassan, told the Health Service Journal: ‘It is extremely concerning that one recommendation seems to revise the safe level of bed occupancy up to 92 per cent.

‘[The college] would have serious concerns about this as a metric of safety and we would be interested in understanding the evidence base behind this thesis.

‘Our strong view is that the evidence base all points to 85 per cent as being the safer [and more efficient] level that all systems should be aiming for.’

And NHS Providers, which represents hospital and ambulance workers, agreed that having a target higher than 90 per cent was a ‘real concern’.


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