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Twelve NHS hospital trusts report 100% bed occupancy rates

Twelve hospital trusts have no free beds to treat patients coming to A&E, official figures reveal.

NHS data shows the stark winter pressures have gripped casualty units across the country, with ambulance delays of an hour having doubled in a week.

The statistics, published by NHS England, showed 12 trusts, which manage 16 hospitals, were operating at 100 per cent bed occupancy levels on December 31. 

This figure is double that of the same day in 2016, when just six were recorded. The Red Cross branded the situation last winter a ‘humanitarian crisis’.

The overall rate sits at 93.5 per cent – well above the recommended safe level of 85 per cent, according to data collected from all 137 trusts across England.

The new figures follow the unprecedented move to cancel up to 55,000 non-urgent operations to free up beds and frontline staff amid a rise in flu cases.

Families have also been asked to look after elderly patients at home to free up beds as hospitals struggle to cope with the ever-increasing pressure.

However, Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday refused to accept the NHS was in a crisis – despite the ‘extremely difficult circumstances’ facing A&E units.

NHS data shows the winter pressures have gripped A&E units across the country, with ambulance delays and bed occupancies also rising

Managers have urged relatives to help ensure patients are discharged quickly, including collecting them and becoming familiar with their medication.

The advice was issued at three hospitals, Northampton General Hospital, Bedford Hospital and Western Sussex.

The crisis, which has also been denied by Professor Keith Willett, NHS England’s director for acute care, has been described as the worst since the 1990s.

A&E staff have taken to social media to condemn the situation, revealing they are ‘ashamed’ over the ‘substandard care’ the NHS is offering. 

Others have branded the crisis as ‘battlefield medicine’ and warned it is unusual for the winter pressures to begin so early.

WHAT TRUSTS HAVE NO FREE BEDS? 

  • Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • James Paget University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
  • Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Foundation Trust 
  • Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn, NHS Foundation Trust 
  • Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust 
  • West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust
  • Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
  • Bolton NHS Foundation Trust 
  • Tameside and Glossop Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust 
  • Weston Area Health NHS Trust 

The new NHS figures, released this morning, also show that 4,734 ambulances faced a wait longer than 60 minutes during the week ending December 31. 

Usually, it should take up to 15 minutes to transfer patients from an ambulance into hospital. Increased pressure on A&E units has led to the delays.

This figure is almost double than the recorded delays the week previous. In the week ending December 24, just 2,413 ambulances faced an hour-long wait. 

Calls to NHS 111, the non-emergency hotline, have also soared by 21 per cent in the space of a week, with 480,400 calls recorded. 

A spokesman for NHS England, which runs the health service, said: ‘Hospitals, GPs, ambulances and other frontline NHS services have been extremely busy between Christmas and New Year.’

They added that all have reported ‘higher levels of respiratory illness and some indications of increasing patient illness severity and flu’. 

‘These increased pressures were mirrored in the NHS 111 service,’ the spokesman continued. 

Yesterday, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt apologised to the thousands of patients whose operations will be cancelled.

Prime Minister Theresa May has denied the NHS is in a crisis - despite the controversial decision by the health service to postpone 55,000 operations (pictured walking around a new housing development in Wokingham this morning)

Prime Minister Theresa May has denied the NHS is in a crisis – despite the controversial decision by the health service to postpone 55,000 operations (pictured walking around a new housing development in Wokingham this morning)

Her comments followed an apology for the patients affected by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, following pressure from critics for him to speak out about the move (pictured outside the BBC Wogan House in London this morning)

Her comments followed an apology for the patients affected by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, following pressure from critics for him to speak out about the move (pictured outside the BBC Wogan House in London this morning)

A&E doctors also warned of severe risks to patient safety as at least 16 hospital trusts said they were on the highest alert.  

Doctors say the conditions in A&E are the worst they have seen and patients are being treated in corridors due to a bed shortage.

HOW HOSPITALS WILL TACKLE THE CRISIS

CANCELLED OPERATIONS

  • Non-urgent operations and hospital appointments scheduled for the rest of January are to be postponed.
  • Cancer operations and time-critical procedures should go ahead as planned.
  • Hospitals should contact patients to tell them if their appointments are cancelled.

MIXED SEX WARDS

  • NHS rules banning mixed sex wards will be temporarily lifted to help hospitals use all available beds.
  • Usually hospitals are fined £250 every night that a patient has to stay in a mixed ward, but this will be waived.
  • Patients can request a move if they have strong objections.

DOCTORS ON THE DOORS

  • Consultants whose appointments are cancelled are expected to pitch in by manning the doors of A&E.
  • Patients could be questioned by doctors as soon as they arrive at hospital.
  • They will then be told to wait for a full examination, be seen immediately, or be given advice and sent home.

The first week in January is normally very busy for hospitals, but this year many more patients are succumbing to severe chest infections and flu.  

The pressures are likely to intensify later this week, with the return of freezing temperatures predicted across the UK.

Experts are particularly worried about an aggressive flu strain, H3N2 – responsible for Australia’s worst flu epidemic in 50 years.

The main reason A&E units are overcrowded is because hospital wards are extremely full, so anyone arriving to A&E who needs to be admitted must wait for hours on a trolley until a bed is free.

Many of the patients occupying hospital beds are elderly and medically well enough to go home. But doctors cannot discharge them due to a lack of social care.

Managers at Northampton General Hospital, Bedford Hospital and Western Sussex Hospitals have urged relatives to do what they can to help patients go home as quickly as possible.

The alerts over the past two days were endorsed by NHS England. A spokesman said relatives could give patients a lift home, making a bed available up to four hours earlier than if they were sent home on hospital transport or in a taxi.

The NHS England spokesman encouraged relatives to speak to their loved one’s doctor and familiarise themselves with all the patient’s medication. Bedford Hospital put an ‘urgent public notice’ on its website yesterday that it was ‘extremely busy’.

It added: ‘We ask that relatives support us and their loved ones by helping us discharge patients that are medically well … to return to the most appropriate environment such as their own home or a community care home.’ A spokesman urged relatives to ‘give up their time’ to cook meals and visit.

Sick people were told to drive themselves to hospital as more than 20 ambulances queued for up to five hours to hand over patients at an A&E. A spike in patients and staff shortages plunged Portsmouth's Queen Alexandra Hospital into chaos on New Year's Eve

Sick people were told to drive themselves to hospital as more than 20 ambulances queued for up to five hours to hand over patients at an A&E. A spike in patients and staff shortages plunged Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital into chaos on New Year’s Eve

Western Sussex Hospitals sent out a reminder on Monday having begun a campaign last month asking families to help get patients out of hospital. A spokesman said relatives could help by allowing them to move in to spare rooms.

Age UK’s Caroline Abrahams warned this was ‘no substitute for the social care service that many older people require’.

SOARING CASES OF ‘AUSSIE FLU’ 

The dreaded Aussie flu outbreak expected to be the worst in 50 years is continuing to wreak havoc on Britain, official figures show.

Some 1,649 people were struck down with flu in England and Wales as temperatures plummeted over the week of Christmas.

The Public Health England data shows cases have soared by 48 per cent in a period of seven days – and are higher than previous winters. 

The rocketing number of flu cases has been put down to a surge in two aggressive subtypes attacking the population simultaneously.

One includes the so-called ‘Aussie flu’, a strain of influenza A which wreaked havoc on hospitals in Australia during the country’s winter.

Usually, just one subtype, either influenza A or B, is responsible for the majority of cases. It spreads much easier in the cold weather. 

But last week 684 cases of influenza A and 915 of influenza B were recorded across England and Wales. Some 54 cases are yet to be identified. 

Yesterday 16 hospital trusts said they were on the highest alert, meaning patient safety is at risk and managers are turning to contingency plans such as drafting in extra staff and diverting ambulances. 

The total number is likely to be higher as many refused to confirm their status. 

Mrs May rejected claims that the NHS is in ‘crisis’ saying the health service is better prepared ‘than ever before’ during a visit to Wokingham yesterday.

She said: ‘Can I say a huge thank you to NHS staff for their hard work, they work hard and do a fantastic job for us day in and day out all year round, but obviously there are extra pressures in winter.

‘They’re doing a fantastic job and their dedication is ensuring that people are getting treatment that they need.

‘The NHS has been better prepared for this winter than ever before, we have put extra funding in.

‘There are more beds available across the system, we’ve reduced the number of delayed discharges of elderly people who would otherwise have been in NHS beds rather than in social care.

‘But I recognise for those people that have had their operations postponed this is disappointing, it’s frustrating.

‘We will ensure that those operations are put back as soon as possible and once again I say that NHS staff are doing a fantastic job.’

Her comments followed the denial of a crisis by Professor Keith Willett on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Professor Keith Willett, NHS England's director for acute care, admitted the drastic decision was 'not ideal'

Former GP Sarah Wollaston warned ministers had to 'understand the sheer scale of the increase in demand across health and social care'

Professor Keith Willett (left), NHS England’s director for acute care, admitted the drastic decision was ‘not ideal’. Former GP Sarah Wollaston (right) warned ministers had to ‘understand the sheer scale of the increase in demand across health and social care’

The former surgeon admitted the drastic step of postponing all routine procedures and turning away non-urgent patients from A&E was ‘not ideal’

He also insisted the health service was ‘better prepared’ for the seasonal pressures than ever before – despite saying pressure is the worst since the 1990s.

DEMENTIA PATIENT SLAMS THE ‘THIRD WORLD CONDITIONS’ 

An 80 year-old dementia sufferer was left on a trolley in the corridor of a NHS hospital slammed by one of its own consultants over ‘third world conditions’ for a day and a half, it has been revealed.

The shocking case highlights the pressure on services with patients being forced to wait almost 10 times the NHS recommendation to be seen at the £350 million Royal Stoke Hospital.

Horrific tales of the conditions some people faced over the festive season came to ligfht after Dr Richard Fawcett took to social media to apologise to people attending the hospital’s A&E unit. 

Jackie Weaver spoke out about the conditions after her 80-year-old dad was left on a trolley for 36 hours.

He suffers from epilepsy and severe dementia and was taken to the Royal Stoke at 4pm on Saturday suffering with breathing difficulties. He was diagnosed with pneumonia.

Mr Weaver, from Wolstanton, Stoke-on-Trent, said: ‘It was absolutely horrendous. I have never witnessed anything like that before.’ 

His comments came as Theresa May faced demands to ‘get a better grip’ on the NHS, with senior Tory MP and former GP Sarah Wollaston warning ministers had to ‘understand the sheer scale of the increase in demand across health and social care’.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was accused of ‘running scared’ of defending his performance after he did not take to the airwaves this morning – although aides said he would be doing interviews later.

In his first TV interview since the unprecedented move by the NHS, he apologised to anyone who has been affected by the decision to postpone some procedures, telling Sky News ‘it is absolutely not what I want’.

He said yesterday: ‘If you are someone whose operation has been delayed I don’t belittle that and I apologise to anyone who that has happened to.’

Mr Hunt added that NHS staff were doing a ‘heroic job’.

‘I think what is different this year compared to last year is that we had a lot of operations cancelled at the last moment.

‘We recognise that it is better if you are unfortunately going to have to cancel and postpone some operations that you do it in a planned way.’

Health bosses across various fields, including the British Medical Association, dismissed Professor Willett’s insistence that there isn’t a crisis.

In response to Professor Willett’s comments, made on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Dr Anthea Mowat, BMA representative body chair, said: ‘The NHS is in the grips of another winter crisis.

‘Patients face long delays in care, operations are cancelled and staff find themselves working under extremely difficult circumstances.’

Chris Hopson, chief executive officer of NHS Providers, moaned that nothing has changed in the NHS since last winter – which was branded a ‘humanitarian crisis’ and saw the Red Cross drafted in to help. No such plans have been made yet.

NOW WE’RE RELYING ON FIREFIGHTERS 

Firefighters with six days of first aid training are being sent to thousands of medical emergencies.

They are being dispatched in fire engines or cars to treat patients who have suffered cardiac arrests, strokes, fits or heavy bleeding.

Last year, fire crews were sent to more than 44,000 emergency calls which would normally have been dealt with by ambulances – a rate of 120 a day.

The situation has come about because ambulance services are struggling to cope with a surge in calls on top of a recruitment crisis of paramedics.

The volume of calls has increased partly because the population is rising and ageing and patients are finding it increasingly difficult to see a GP.

At the same time, calls to the fire service have declined thanks mainly to major improvements to fire prevention and safety.

And lawyers have warned the only way this ‘annual crisis can be avoided’ is through a long-term review of the ‘chronic under-funding of hospitals’.

In an unprecedented move earlier this week, NHS chiefs demanded radical action to free up beds and medical staff. 

Casualty units are under ‘extreme and sustained’ pressure with flu cases on the rise.

Up to 55,000 non-urgent operations will be postponed until February, along with thousands of outpatient appointments and scans.

Managers will be allowed to put patients on mixed-sex wards and consultants will be assigned to casualty units to assess patients on arrival. Anyone not judged to be seriously ill faces being turned away.

Professor Derek Alderson, Royal College of Surgeons’ President and member of the pressures panel said that ‘cancelling operations is a necessary evil’.

‘Staff in the NHS are pulling out all the stops to manage the impact on all patients. It is much better that patients are given several weeks’ notice, rather than a day’s, that their operation won’t go ahead.

‘This avoids wasting their time and the guidance from NHS England is helping hospitals to better support their emergency and urgent patients.

‘Unfortunately it is unlikely to help performance against the 18 week waiting time target. Cancelling operations is a necessary evil.

Mark Nevison, a senior charge nurse at Middlesbrough's James Cook Hospital, tweeted his concerns over the sustained pressure

Mark Nevison, a senior charge nurse at Middlesbrough’s James Cook Hospital, tweeted his concerns over the sustained pressure

Dr Anu Mitra, a consultant emergency physician based at Charing Cross Hospital, London, echoed the concerns

Dr Anu Mitra, a consultant emergency physician based at Charing Cross Hospital, London, echoed the concerns

‘But it also highlights the fundamental problem that, despite the welcome extra money provided in the Budget, we still do not have adequate funding or capacity in our health or social care services.’

It came after an A&E consultant at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust apologised for the ‘third world conditions’ endured at his hospital this weekend.

MEDICS ARE ‘ASHAMED’ OVER THE ‘BATTLEFIELD MEDICINE’ CRISIS

An ‘ashamed’ A&E nurse has spoke of his disgust over the ‘substandard care’ the overwhelmed NHS is providing as the winter pressure bites.

Others have described the situation, which has seen hospitals ordered to cancel thousands of operations to tackle the crisis, as ‘battlefield medicine’. 

Mark Nevison, a senior charge nurse at Middlesbrough’s James Cook Hospital, tweeted his concerns over the sustained pressure he has faced.

He wrote: ‘I have worked in A&E for 10 yrs, I have never been so ashamed of the substandard care we are now offering due to a lack of capacity and resources. 

‘I work in one of the best performing trusts in the country, I dread to think what the others are like!! [sic]’

Dr Anu Mitra, a consultant emergency physician based at Charing Cross Hospital, London, echoed the widespread concerns.

He posted a series of tweets describing the ‘battlefield medicine’ situation, which saw patients being treated in corridors. 

‘Two years ago I’d have point blank refused to examine a corridor patient until they were in a cubicle,’ he tweeted. 

‘Now on days like this it’s unavoidable. I’m ashamed to say.’

Dr Richard Fawcett revealed that the department had run out of corridors to house patients. He blamed the crisis, which saw some patients have to wait for 12 hours, on overcrowding.

Other A&E staff have taken to Twitter today to condemn the situation that trusts across the country are facing.

An ‘ashamed’ A&E nurse has spoke of his disgust over the ‘substandard care’ the overwhelmed NHS is providing as the winter pressure bites.

Mark Nevison, a senior charge nurse at Middlesbrough’s James Cook Hospital, tweeted his concerns over the sustained pressure he has faced.

He wrote: ‘I have worked in A&E for 10 yrs, I have never been so ashamed of the substandard care we are now offering due to a lack of capacity and resources.

‘I work in one of the best performing trusts in the country, I dread to think what the others are like!! [sic]’

Dr Anu Mitra, a consultant emergency physician based at Charing Cross Hospital, London, echoed the widespread concerns.

Mark Nevison, a senior charge nurse at Middlesbrough’s James Cook Hospital, tweeted his concerns over the sustained pressure

He posted a series of tweets describing the ‘battlefield medicine’ situation, which saw patients being treated in corridors.

‘Two years ago I’d have point blank refused to examine a corridor patient until they were in a cubicle,’ he tweeted. Now on days like this it’s unavoidable. I’m ashamed to say.’

Government figures also reveal confirmed cases of flu have risen 50 per cent in a week and experts are worried about an especially aggressive ‘Australian’ strain.

It was responsible for the worst flu outbreak in 50 years Down Under and has already claimed a number of lives in Ireland.

A&E CONSULTANT APOLOGISES FOR ‘THIRD WORLD’ CONDITIONS

Dr Richard Fawcett works at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust

Dr Richard Fawcett works at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust

A consultant at one of the country’s largest A&E units has apologised for the ‘third world conditions’ endured at his hospital this weekend.

Dr Richard Fawcett, who works at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust, revealed that the department had run out of corridors to house patients.

His heartfelt tweet, which made national headlines on Saturday, described the true situation that faced many A&E units across the country.

He said County Hospital in Stafford couldn’t hold any more ambulances and they were stacked up outside the other trust-run A&E at Royal Stoke University Hospital.

Dr Fawcett has now blamed the crisis, which saw some patients have to wait 12 hours to see a doctor, on overcrowding.

Dr Fawcett tweeted: ‘As an A&E consultant, I personally apologise to the people of stoke for the 3rd world conditions of the dept due to overcrowding [sic]’

Strangers responded to his tweet, posted this morning, in admiration for his honesty and refused to blame him for the situation at the hospital in Staffordshire.

Dr Richard Fawcett, who works at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust, apologised for the third world conditions at this A&E department

Dr Richard Fawcett, who works at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust, apologised for the third world conditions at this A&E department

Dr Fawcett revealed County Hospital in Stafford is having to turn away A&E patients because even the corridors are too full

Dr Fawcett revealed County Hospital in Stafford is having to turn away A&E patients because even the corridors are too full

There were reports yesterday of waits of up to ten hours at casualty departments and managers issued social media alerts pleading with the public to stay away.

Two NHS bosses said the pressures were the worst in 30 years with one doctor apologising for ‘Third World’ conditions.

However, Professor Willett told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I fully accept that for the individual that will be really very uncomfortable.

‘But what we know is if we don’t have a plan in place and we don’t do this in a structured way, what will happen, as we’ve had in previous winters, is lots of last-minute cancellations which is really distracting for patients, it’s inconvenient, it upsets the plans they’ve put together with their family, particularly for elderly patients where their care needs are often quite significant.’

Professor Willett went on: ‘We’ve gone into this winter in a way that we’ve never prepared before, so we went into the winter before Christmas having cancelled fewer elective operations than we had previously, discharges from hospital were at a lower level than they had been previously, so we were better prepared.

A number of ambulance services are also under severe pressure, with two even resorting to taxis to ferry patients to hospital

A number of ambulance services are also under severe pressure, with two even resorting to taxis to ferry patients to hospital

‘We’ve also set up a national, regional and local structure – if you like, a winter pressures protocol – which we are invoking now and we are monitoring a whole series of things, activity in the service and the pressures.

‘We are monitoring the weather alerts in anticipation of weather changes because we know that’s important, and we also monitor the seasonal illnesses like flu.

‘We’ve started to see those change, that’s why the National Emergency Pressures Panel has now come out with these clear recommendations.’

Commenting on Professor Willett’s interview, Joshua Hughes, head of complex injury at lawyer firm Bolt Burdon Kemp, said: ‘There needs to be a fundamental, long term review of the chronic under-funding of our hospitals and community care. Only then can this annual crisis be avoided.’

Dr Wollaston, chair of the cross-party Health Select Committee, said the NHS was running a ‘full stretch’ and there was still ‘not enough money’ being spent – even though budgets have risen significantly in real terms since 2010.

‘The point is, if you have a very major increase in people who are living longer with complex conditions, that produces particular demands on the health system that I think they need to get a better grip on, to understand the sheer scale of the increase in demand across health and social care. And that’s what they need to do better planning for,’ she said.

It comes as out-of-hours services in Northern Ireland announced they are buckling under the strain of winter pressures, Pulse reports.

Dr Tom Black, chair of the BMA’s Northern Ireland GP committee, said they needed 400 extra GPs to cope with the surge in demand.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘We know the NHS is extremely busy – as it always is at this time of year.’

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘The entire health service is facing intense winter pressures again this year and with the prevailing cold weather and peak of the flu season, these pressures are unlikely to let up anytime soon – and NHS staff in all areas of the service are working incredibly hard to deliver the best care possible for their patients.’

Dr Peter-Marc Fortune, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said pressures have reached ‘extreme’ levels.

The move comes after leading medics warned that every emergency department in the country is struggling to cope with winter pressures

The move comes after leading medics warned that every emergency department in the country is struggling to cope with winter pressures

The first week of January is always busy with patients coming in with flu, chest infections, heart attacks and strokes.

But doctors say the pressures this year are greater even than in January 2017 which was itself considered unprecedented.

It is the first time NHS England has told hospitals to take such drastic measures during the winter.

The measures were announced by Bruce Keogh, the NHS medical director, following a meeting of the National Emergency Pressures Panel, which includes representatives of the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Nursing.

Afterward Sir Bruce said: ‘I want to thank NHS staff who have worked incredibly hard under sustained pressure to take care of patients over the Christmas.

WHERE ELSE IS STRUGGLING? 

Some hospitals have declared themselves at the most severe pressure level while doctors warned that scores are operating at almost full capacity.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine warned that overcrowding in A&E departments leads to avoidable deaths.

It also cautioned that pressure on the system is leading to lengthy waits and patients being treated in corridors.

Meanwhile a number of ambulance services are also under severe pressure, with one even resorting to taxis to ferry patients to hospital.

The East of England Ambulance Service said that during December 30, 31 and January 1, 13 patients deemed to be low acuity calls were transported to hospital by taxi.

In the last four days, paramedics working for the trust have wasted more than 500 hours waiting outside hospitals to admit patients due to ‘handover delays’.

A number of hospital trusts have declared that they are Operational Pressures Escalation Level 4 – meaning patient care is compromised.

Darent Valley Hospital A&E in Kent, Royal Cornwall Hospital and University Hospitals Of Leicester NHS Trust have all said they have declared OPEL4 in the last week.

Meanwhile, Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group said the health system in the whole county has declared OPEL4. 

University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust’s medical director Dr John Oxtoby admitted the pressure was severe over Christmas. 

‘We expect these pressures to continue and there are early signs of increased flu prevalence.

‘The NHS needs to take further action to increase capacity and minimise disruptive last-minute cancellations. That is why we are making these further recommendations today.’

The main measure is the postponement of tens of thousands of pre-planned operations due in January.

NHS England said up to 55,000 non-urgent operations would probably be delayed, including hip and knee surgery and cataract procedures.

This figure could rise to 350,000 if day case procedures are included, although officials said this was unlikely.

Cancer surgery or any other procedure which is considered urgent will not be delayed. Patients will receive letters in the post if they are affected.

Fines for mixed sex wards will be temporarily suspended until February to ensure patients are placed wherever there is a spare bed.

And patients coming into A&E will be assessed by a consultant on the door to establish very quickly whether they are seriously ill.

Anyone with a minor illness or injury may be told to go to a walk-in centre, a GP or pharmacist.

Hospital doctors have also been told to review their cases twice a day to ensure that anyone who has recovered is discharged quickly.

Patients are being urged to call NHS 111 or go to a pharmacy rather than A&E – unless they are very seriously ill. 

One ambulance trust was asking family members to ferry patients to hospital as it was so overwhelmed with calls.

The North East Ambulance Service said it had been hit by an ‘unprecedented levels of demand’ between Christmas and New Year.

The East of England Ambulance Service said some patients had been ferried to hospital by taxi in the last three days as there were no free ambulances.

The move comes after leading medics warned that every emergency department in the country is struggling to cope with winter pressures

Paramedics at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth, Hampshire, had to wait up to five hours to take patients into hospital on Sunday.

There were reports that 24 ambulances were parked outside the hospital at its busiest point, with an average of ten to 14 vehicles waiting to drop off patients throughout the day.

Usually, it should take up to 15 minutes to transfer patients from an ambulance into hospital.

Hospital staff were so stretched they declared an ‘internal incident’ on New Years Eve, the most serious alert usually reserved for unexpected catastrophes.

Senior officials clashed with the Government following November’s budget, when they were allocated a third of the money they had asked for.

Later that month they announced that up to 3,000 prescription medicines would be rationed because the NHS could no longer cover the cost.

The increase in pressures on A&E is being driven by the ageing population, with many more frail and elderly patients succumbing to serious illness. 

Saffron Cordery, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said: ‘Preparations for winter in the NHS have been more extensive and meticulous than ever before.

‘Many are dealing with unprecedented demand, reflecting the recent rise in cases of flu and respiratory illness, the impact of norovirus and – in some places – primary care, including GPs, working at more than full stretch.’

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s health spokesman, said: ‘Tory underfunding and cuts have left our Health Service more vulnerable than ever before.’



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