Doctors and patients accuse government of failing to stop NHS crisis

Sarah Marsh and Haroon Siddique
Ambulances in Bristol. Hospitals have been told to postpone non-urgent surgery to cope with the crisis, including at the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire trust where they are operating at the highest alert level. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

NHS providers, doctors and patients have joined opposition parties in accusing the government of failing to stop the growing crisis in the NHS this winter.

Pressure on the health service in England continues to mount with at least 21 trusts – many responsible for multiple hospitals – on black alert, known as opel 4, on Wednesday. Hospitals are forced to announce this when they can no longer guarantee patient safety and provide their full range of services.

In Somerset, three trusts – Yeovil district hospital, Taunton and Somerset and Somerset Partnership – were operating at the highest alert level. Bristol North Somerset and South Gloucestershire were in similar positions.

Ashford and St Peter’s hospital trust in Surrey declared it was on black alert and had had “very high A&E attendances over the last few days”, with 320 patients in the department on Tuesday.

In an email to staff, Valerie Bartlett, the trust’s deputy chief executive, said: “We also have 80 patients classed as medical outliers – where due to lack of space on our medical wards they are being cared for on other wards … this is not best practice in terms of providing the best and safest care for our patients and has a knock-on effect for planned surgery.”

Many more trusts that reported problems refused to disclose their alert level because they were no longer obliged to do so by NHS guidelines. A lot of trusts that said they were not at black alert level admitted to being under pressure.

The North East ambulance service (NEAS) said it faced “extreme pressure”, which affected its ability to respond to potentially life-threatening incidents. It asked patients to find alternative transport options if appropriate.

Paul Liversidge, the NEAS chief operating officer, said: “The last week has been incredibly busy, not just for our service but across the wider NHS network.”

Speaking to Sky News on Wednesday, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, apologised to patients for the pressure on the health service, which he said had prompted the government to tell hospitals to extend an existing ban on non-urgent surgery until the end of the month.

He said that while it was not what he wanted, it had been done to allow “a planned, methodical, thoughtful” approach. He said it would avoid operations being cancelled at the last minute.

The prime minister, Theresa May, paid tribute to NHS staff and pledged operations would be rescheduled “as soon as possible”. She said staff were doing a “fantastic job” under pressure and insisted the service had been better prepared than ever before.

But the government faced criticism from charities, doctors and opposition MPs who said the government was responsible for the worsening situation in hospitals this winter.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “Yet again Theresa May reveals how entirely out of touch she is. She will next be trying to lecture patients that ‘nothing has changed’.”

Dr Anthea Mowat, the chair of the British Medical Association representative body, said: “What is happening in our A&Es is symptomatic of pressures across the entire system … Short-term fixes, however well-meaning, will only get us so far. Each winter the pressure on the NHS worsens and politicians are not taking the long-term view needed to ensure the NHS can keep up with rising demand.”

John Kell, the Patients Association’s head of policy, said politicians’ decisions had left the NHS in its current situation. He said: “Ministers must be accountable for this winter’s crisis. The policy decisions that have left the NHS in this position are taken by the government, and it is ministers who are directly accountable to parliament and to patients when they vote at elections.”

The Liberal Democrat former health minister Norman Lamb said: “[Hunt’s] apology will be little comfort to the tens of thousands of people across the country seeing their operations delayed. There is no doubt that patients will die and families will suffer because of the impossible pressure the NHS is being put under.”