England's National Health Service (NHS) is planning to discharge thousands of patients into care homes and other settings in the coming weeks to free up desperately needed hospital beds during one of its toughest winters.
The state-run health service delivers free care to the whole population and has long been considered a source of pride for Britain. Nevertheless, it currently finds itself under strain following years of relative underinvestment, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and strike action by frontline staff over pay.
Certain patients are being treated in corridors, while ambulances have been queuing outside hospitals to hand over patients to emergency wards, as doctors and nurses struggle to discharge patients amid staff and bed shortages.
The government said in a statement it would make up to £200 million (€227m) of additional funding available in England to buy short-term care places to allow patients deemed to have low medical needs to be cared for outside hospital and £50m (€57m) to improve existing facilities.
The statement did not make any comment about whether the NHS in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would also be putting more funds into care beds.
The objective of discharging some patients into other settings is a return to an NHS practice used in England during the height of the pandemic when hospitals sought to clear as many beds as possible for use by patients with COVID-19.
"The NHS is under enormous pressure from COVID and flu, and on top of tackling the backlog caused by the pandemic, Strep A and upcoming strikes, this winter poses an extreme challenge," said health minister Steve Barclay in the statement.
Barclay will address parliament on Monday to delineate other measures to reduce the burdens facing the NHS.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said last week that reducing hospital waiting lists was one of his five priorities for the country this year, although he noted that this goal might take longer to achieve than some others.
The government has previously announced extra funding for the NHS and social care, including £500m (€568m) for patient discharges. The opposition Labour Party, nevertheless, said the money is yet to reach the front line and comes too late to make a difference this winter.
Health services statistics showed that more than nine in 10 beds in hospitals were occupied in the week running up to New Year, with 13,000 beds a day taken up by patients who were medically fit to be discharged.