Around a dozen NHS trusts and ambulance services have declared critical incidents in the last 10 days, with the health service facing “one of the toughest winters in its history”, officials have warned.
Dorset County, Portsmouth and Nottingham University Hospitals are the latest to make declarations on Thursday after warning they are being overwhelmed with patients while suffering staff shortages.
Industry officials said flu, Covid-19, industrial action and problems discharging patients are compounding the longer-term issues of poor investment, staff vacancies and a backlog of surgeries.
The NHS in Leeds said “some planned surgery will be cancelled” in order to prioritise urgent and emergency care, though it has not declared a critical incident.
Surrey and Sussex Healthcare Trust said on Wednesday it is seeing “record numbers of people attending A&E, calling NHS111, accessing GP services and calling 999” while more staff are off sick.
Medway Foundation NHS Trust in Kent and Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust in Lancashire also declared critical incidents last week.
⚠️ We have declared a critical incident as we continue to face extreme operational pressures. Our focus is making sure our patients are safe and that we keep our critical services running. Read more, including how you can help, here: https://t.co/3c8PxBDn03 pic.twitter.com/5SvM58oE3N
— Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (@DCHFT) December 29, 2022
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The number of critical incidents we have seen declared over recent days are an accumulation of a number of difficult challenges meaning the NHS is facing one of the toughest winters in its history.
“High rates of flu, ongoing issues with delayed discharge and the disruptive impact of industrial action are compounding the longer-term issues of over 130,000 NHS vacancies, a decade-long lack of investment in capital and the elective backlog. This is bringing pressures to a head in many parts of the country.
“Whilst secondary care is where these challenges are perhaps the most visible, it’s also the case that primary, community and mental health care are under huge strain and many of the most vulnerable members of our communities rely on these services most.
“NHS leaders across the whole system are working hard to ensure patients get the best possible care and flow is optimised but the reality is the system is creaking under unprecedented pressure.”
Six ambulance services have also declared critical incidents since December 19, with North East Ambulance Service and East of England Ambulance Service declaring twice.
South Western Ambulance Service is advising the public to “think carefully” before dialling 999 as by 11.30am on Wednesday, there were 482 patients waiting for ambulances across the south west with 106 waiting outside hospitals.
A spokesperson from Yorkshire Ambulance Service said it was receiving an “extremely high volume of calls” and said anyone with less serious illnesses or injuries should consider “self-care, their local pharmacy, GP surgery or urgent care centre”.
We have declared a critical incident and remain under extreme pressure. If you need urgent medical help, please think 111 online first. 💻 999 is for life-threatening emergencies only. 🚨 https://t.co/L9gNiHzqzr #Think111 pic.twitter.com/NEFLz4m8nC
— South Western Ambulance Service (@swasFT) December 29, 2022
South East Coast Ambulance Service said it saw a week of “sustained pressure” before Christmas while South Central said it had also declared an incident on December 19 following high demand.
Interim chief executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery said: “The situation is very worrying. We’re seeing Covid-19 cases and flu on top of the usual winter pressures.
“Staff sickness rates are high, aggravating severe workforce shortages and the strikes have caused additional disruption.
“These pressures are being felt right across the system, in hospitals, A&Es, mental health, community and ambulance services.
“Too often that can lead to delays for patients. But it’s important not to lose sight of the good care that is being delivered to many people through this holiday period.
“Trusts and their partners are doing all they can in very difficult circumstances.”