The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was forced to apologise after tens of thousands of NHS operations and potentially millions of routine outpatient appointments were put on hold.
The apology came after guidance from the NHS National Emergency Pressures Panel advising all non-urgent appointments, day cases and outpatient procedures be delayed until 31 January and resources redeployed to A&Es.
Both Mr Hunt and NHS England’s director of acute care, Professor Keith Willett, denied that this was a sign of a “crisis”.
The Health Secretary told Sky News in an interview the cancellations were happening in a “planned way”.
This compares to last year’s crisis when, he said, “we had a lot of operations cancelled at the last minute, a lot of people were called up the day before their operation and told, ‘I’m sorry, it can’t go ahead’”.
“I think this is better for people,” Mr Hunt said.
“Although if you are someone whose operation has been delayed, I don’t belittle that for one moment and indeed I apologise to everyone who that has happened to,” he added.
Meanwhile the Prime Minister, on a visit in Wokingham today, said the NHS was ”better prepared for this winter than ever before”, adding that “extra funding” had been provided.
She said it was “disappointing” and “frustrating” for people affected by cancellations, but said they would be “rescheduled as soon as possible”.
However, in the past 24 hours details have emerged showing at least 15 per cent of NHS acute hospital trusts and ambulance trusts declaring “black alerts” and of patients having surgery cancelled at the last minute, sometimes after waiting for months.
Twenty-three out of 145 NHS acute hospital trusts and ambulance trusts are known to have declared black alerts, formally known as Operational Pressures Escalation Level (Opel) Four.
The status means pressures are unsustainable and is declared when “there is increased potential for patient care and safety to be compromised”.
Acute trusts, which often operate several hospitals, in Leicester, Kent, Devon, Nottingham, Surrey and beyond have confirmed they are on black alert, but other trusts have yet to respond.
Dennis Kelly from Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, has had his kidney stone operation cancelled twice in the last month, despite having been waiting since April.
He told The Independent he previously went to A&E “in the middle of the night, in excruciating pain, and had cancelled holidays for appointments that didn’t happen”.
“It makes a mess of your life, you just can’t plan anything,” he added.
Dr Dave Triffitt, a GP partner in Oxford who was due to have heart surgery on Tuesday told The Independent he found out less than 24 hours before he was due to be in hospital that it was being pushed back.
“I’ve got, a leaky aortic valve, I can come to work, but they keep saying it’s quite severe and I need to have it sorted fairly quickly,” he said.
“I called yesterday for a bed – that’s when I heard it was cancelled. So that seems pretty short notice for me. It seems at odds with the plan to prevent short notice cancellations.
He added that he wasn’t the only heart patient affected, but said the experience had brought home to him, as a GP, the reality of being caught up in the annual winter crisis.
His practice had secured cover for him to have six weeks off work, and cancelled his patients for that period – something which would now have to happen again when is surgery is rescheduled.
“On a personal level you realise how awful it is when you get cancelled on, you’ve got all the logistics and organisation, just to take time off work,” he said.
“For anybody it’s disruptive, added to that the concern about your heart problem.
“I must admit I got myself all keyed up for the operation ... and you get your head around that, and then – nope – you’re just back to being a doctor again the next day.”
Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which was due to conduct Dr Triffitt’s surgery, has declared a black alert and is now at Opel 4.
Paul Brennan, the trust’s director of clinical services told The Independent: “In common with health systems up and down the country, we are experiencing seasonal high volumes of attendances at our emergency departments, in conjunction with difficulties in discharging patients who are medically fit to leave hospital.
“In line with national guidance from NHS England, we have made the decision to postpone a number of adult inpatient planned but non-urgent operations at three of our hospitals (John Radcliffe, Churchill and Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre) in order to help alleviate this pressure.”
They join 21 other hospital trusts, such as Milton Keynes University Hospital which said on New Year’s Day that patients should only attend in emergencies, and two ambulance trusts, North East Ambulance Service and East of England Ambulance Service, that have admitted they were “unable to deliver comprehensive care” in the last week and have declared a major incident (Opel 4) for at least an hour at some point.
The Independent revealed previously how pressure on ambulances in the North East meant nurses are now being drafted in to act as “first responders” for 999 calls.
While a senior emergency medicine consultant in Stoke-on-Trent, Dr Richard Fawcett, apologised for the “third world conditions” patients were facing in his emergency department.
Outside of England, a Scottish health board deployed office staff to help at hospitals and GP surgeries due to high demand in A&E.
NHS Lanarkshire said its hospital sites at Hairmyres, Wishaw and Monklands had been “inundated” over the festive period and “exceptional measures” were necessary to ensure patient safety – meaning backroom workers have been drafted in to clean and help with administrative tasks over the next five days.
A doctors’ union claimed its members had not seen conditions like those prevailing today “in this century”.
Dr Taj Hassan, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: “We are facing incredible demands upon our staff to maintain safety. Many clinicians have not seen such working environments in this century and we must address the deep-seated problems to find tangible medium-term solutions.”
It also emerged in recent days that a Northern Ireland hospital asked St John Ambulance volunteers to keep patients company in A&E on New Year’s Eve amid what the Royal College of Nursing called a “crisis” in the nursing workforce.
The union’s area director Janice Smyth said Antrim Hospital had taken an “unprecedented step” but that it was the “least worst decision”.
St John Ambulance said its volunteers’ actions on New Year’s Eve were “nothing spectacular” and that it offered similar support nationwide.