Hospitals last week became the busiest they’ve been all winter as only five in every 100 hospital beds were free for new patients.
NHS hospitals entered their fifth consecutive week of being overloaded with inpatients as 94.9 per cent of beds were occupied – the highest figure yet this season.
Not far below the worst point of last year’s ‘worst ever winter’, which hit 95.2 per cent, beds have been above the NHS target of 92 per cent since the new year.
The most recent figure came as snow last week blanketed much of the UK, with temperatures reportedly dropping as low as -16°C (3.2°F) in Scotland.
To add to the pressure the number of beds closed because of norovirus, diarrhoea and vomiting spiked by more than a third in a week.
Average hospital bed occupancy across all hospitals in England has been above the health service’s 92 per cent safety threshold for five consecutive weeks since the beginning of the new year, and last week hit its highest point yet – 94.9 per cent
Today’s figures released by the NHS show A&E departments appear to be holding their own but staff on the wards are still under immense strain.
The proportion of patients waiting 30 minutes or more to be seen after arriving by ambulance is its lowest since Christmas at 11 per cent.
But hospital beds are full beyond the health service’s safe operating limit.
There are approximately 142,000 hospital beds in England, according to the King’s Fund think-tank, with statistics suggesting around 135,000 of them were full on an average day last week.
Only 11 hospital trusts were completely full on one or more nights, and none were 100 per cent full all week.
Croydon Health Services in south London was the worst affected, with its beds completely full on five days.
Part of the reason for a rising bed shortage could be a sudden spike in beds being closed because of in-hospital outbreaks of norovirus, diarrhoea or vomiting.
On average, 708 beds were closed each day across the country for this reason – a 34 per cent rise from 530 per day the week before.
Norovirus is a usually short-lived infection which causes vomiting and diarrhoea which tend to last for a few days – it is more common in hospitals than outside.
Despite the fast rise in cases over the past two weeks, Public Health England has reassured people levels are still about average.
In statistics also released today PHE said there were 10 outbreaks of norovirus in English hospitals between January 14 and 27.
It said: ‘Reports of suspected and confirmed outbreaks of norovirus in hospitals in England are… at lower levels than the same period in the previous five seasons.’
NHS leaders have praised NHS staff for keeping A&E statistics under control but just five in every 100 hospital beds were free for new patients on average day last week – the NHS’s safe operating target is to have no more than 92 per cent of beds full (stock image)
STAFF AND CASH SHORTAGES ADD TO NHS PRESSURES
Higher numbers of people visit doctors and hospitals in the winter, making staff busier, but too few staff and funding gaps make it even more difficult for hospitals to run smoothly.
There were more than 100,000 empty job posts in September 2018 and analysts feared the situation would only get worse.
NHS trusts across England were also £814 million in deficit at the end of June, a shocking quarterly report also revealed.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said trusts – which run local services and spend money – ‘are doing all they can’.
Commenting on the figures, he added: ‘However hard they run, they don’t seem able to outpace the increase in demand.
‘Trusts tell us they are most worried about the workforce shortages they face, and it’s a real concern that these figures have shown such a big increase in vacancy levels.
‘It’s worrying this problem is getting worse rather than better.’
More patients are being treated at hospitals but the number arriving by ambulance is among the lowest since this year’s figures began in December.
A total of 97,620 people were taken in by paramedics between January 28 and February 3, with 10,810 of them waiting half an hour or more to be seen.
Hospitals diverted ambulances away from busy A&E departments 13 times – the lowest number this winter.
‘NHS staff have been going to extraordinary lengths, battling snowy and icy conditions and increasing norovirus and flu cases to provide patients with the quality care they need,’ a health service spokesperson said.
‘It is thanks to their hard work and dedication that, despite more people going to hospital than last year, A&E departments have been more resilient, and more people are getting the support they need to return home quickly.
‘But the public still has an important role to play by using NHS 111 as the first port of call for non-emergencies.’
A spokesperson for NHS Confederation, which represents NHS providers, said: ‘The NHS is coping better with demand this year, despite the cold snap.
‘However, we are still seeing ambulance delays and high bed occupancy rates, including over 800 beds closed due to flu and norovirus.
‘Patients can take some comfort that the NHS has not buckled under the weight of winter pressures.
‘Local services will be fearful of the threat posed by cold weather and flu and norovirus which could strike at anytime. But the signs so far this winter are very good.’