The deaths of an estimated 500 people each week caused by delays in emergency care is “not a short-term thing”, a senior health official has said.
Ian Higginson, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, hit out at any attempt to “discredit” previous warnings from his organisation over serious problems in hospitals by blaming the pandemic.
Mr Higginson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What we’ve been hearing over the last few days is that the current problems are all due to Covid or they’re all due to flu, or that this is complex, you mustn’t jump to conclusions – all that sort of stuff.
“If you’re at the front line, you know that this is a longstanding problem. This isn’t a short-term thing. The sort of things we’re seeing happen every winter, and it still seems to come as a surprise to the NHS.”
The president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Adrian Boyle, told Times Radio on Monday that somewhere between 300 and 500 people are dying each week as a result of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care.
“We need to actually get a grip of this,” he said.
It comes after more than a dozen NHS trusts and ambulance services declared critical incidents over the festive period.
Last week, one in five ambulance patients in England waited more than an hour to be handed over to A&E teams.
NHS trusts have a target of 95% of ambulance handovers to be completed within 30 minutes, and 100% within 60 minutes.
In November, 37,837 patients waited more than 12 hours in A&E for a decision to be admitted to a hospital department, according to figures from NHS England.
This is an increase of almost 355% compared with the previous November, when the figure was 10,646.
Mr Higginson added that the Royal College of Emergency Medicine figures on deaths caused by delays were more than a “guesstimate”.
“We have really good evidence that has been accumulated over decades that long waits in emergency departments are associated with poor outcomes for patients,” he said.
“These are real figures and I worry that we’re going to hear attempts to spin and manipulate this data and discredit it. I think if we hear that, we’ve got to say no – that is spin.
“This is a real problem. It’s happening now in our emergency departments.”
Mr Higginson told BBC News that staff in emergency departments are having to treat patients in corridors, adding: “It’s pretty dreadful out there for doctors, nurses, other practitioners in emergency departments, but importantly it’s dreadful for our patients, I’m afraid.
“What we’re seeing is an amplification of the sorts of stuff we’ve been hearing about for a while now, where patients are waiting a long time for ambulances. Once they get an ambulance, they might be waiting outside our emergency departments for a long time to actually get in our doors.
“And once they finally make it through our doors there are long waits inside our departments to be seen. And we’re having to treat patients in all sorts of unsatisfactory places, such as corridors, or areas that simply aren’t meant to to house patients.
“All this is at a level that most of us who’ve worked in emergency medicine have never seen before. It’s dreadful.”
Education minister Robert Halfon told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday that the pressure on A&E departments is a “top priority” for the Prime Minister.
The Conservative MP acknowledged the pressures facing the health system but said: “I’m absolutely clear that the Prime Minister treats this as a top priority.
“We’re increasing the NHS capacity by the equivalent of 7,000 beds, spending an extra £500 million to speed up hospital discharge and improve capacity.”
He admitted that more needed to be done but defended the Government’s response.
“The Government is putting a lot of funding and doing everything possible.
“We know, of course, that many of these problems have been caused by the pandemic and the pressures on the NHS that we’ve seen over the past few years.”
Labour has blamed Government “mismanagement” for creating a sense of “jeopardy” around the health system.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, who described staff shortages as the “heart” of the crisis”, said there was a “sense of jeopardy” regarding the health service.
He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that the country was looking at the “consequences” of “more than 12 years of Conservative mismanagement” as he pointed to lengthy waiting lists and “enormous” staff shortages.
“It’s also the situation we see now, which I think is unprecedented in the NHS, which is people no longer feel confident that emergency medicine will be there for them when they need it.”
“Indeed, the NHS seems to be actively deterring people from going to accident and emergency departments unless it’s life threatening, because they are overwhelmed.
“And I think that’s the sense of jeopardy, which is frightening so many people across the country.”
While the Liberal Democrats called on the Government to recall Parliament.
Health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said: “NHS paramedics, nurses and doctors are this country’s heroes but they have been left high and dry by the Government. They need help right now before more people die.
“I am calling for Parliament to return without delay. The Prime Minister must declare a major incident now to put the NHS back on a pandemic-style footing amid soaring numbers of deaths.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said that NHS staff do an “incredible” job.
“NHS staff do an incredible job and we recognise the pressures the NHS is facing following the impact of the pandemic,” they said.
“That’s why we’ve backed the NHS and social care with up to £14.1 billion additional funding over the next two years and this winter we have provided an extra £500 million to speed up hospital discharge and free up beds. We also awarded a 9.3% pay rise to the lowest earners in the NHS last year.
“The Health Secretary and ministers have met with unions several times and have been clear their door remains open to further discuss how we can work together to improve the working lives of NHS staff.”