NHS crisis 'risks patients safety' say doctors as Jeremy Hunt apologises for delayed operations

Ross Lydall, NIcholas Cecil
Jeremy Hunt has apologised to patients who have had operations delayed as a result of winter pressures in the NHS in England: PA

Emergency doctors today warned of a “major risk to safety” from the winter A&E meltdown.

Theresa May said the postponement of 55,000 operations was “disappointing” and “frustrating” but that the NHS was “better prepared for this winter than it ever has been before”.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said at lunchtime that the postponements were part of “a planned, methodical, thoughtful” approach to dealing with the winter pressures, which have intensified this week because of the weather and flu-related conditions.

Mr Hunt, who had been criticised for his media absence this morning, apologised to patients hit by delays to non-emergency surgery. “It is absolutely not what I want,” the minister said.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare organisations, said: “The NHS is under enormous pressure and this decision [to postpone operations] simply reflects that reality.

“Our members warned repeatedly that this winter was likely to put an already stretched system under intolerable strain. Something has to give and this move — although unpalatable — makes sense.” The Royal College of Emergency Medicine warned of “intolerable” pressure on front-line medics. It said it had anecdotal evidence of some hospitals treating as few as 45 per cent of patients within four hours. The target is 95 per cent.

Jeremy Hunt outside BBC Wogan House in London today after he apologised to patients (PA)

College president Dr Taj Hassan said: “We are facing incredible demands on our staff to maintain safety... many clinicians have not seen such working environments in this century.”

Amid the crisis:

  • London hospitals reported 20 per cent increases in very sick elderly patients, packed waiting areas and longer delays for treatment.
  • Epsom & St Helier health trust spent £1,000 on 130 Domino’s pizzas to feed staff who worked without a break on New Year’s Day.
  • Barking, Havering and Redbridge trust, which runs Queen’s hospital in Romford and King George in Ilford, revealed it was battling “chronic” vacancy rates.

One London hospital chief executive, who personally urged patients with non-urgent conditions to go home, said: “This is the most challenging time any of us can ever remember.”

Barking, Havering and Redbridge said its four-hour A&E performance fell to 77 per cent in December. A board meeting was told that more than 50 per cent of A&E doctor and 30 per cent of nurse posts were unfilled — a problem worsened by agency staff not turning up.

Last night NHS England postponed about 55,000 non-emergency operations due to take place this month. Professor Keith Willett, its director for acute care, today denied that the NHS was in crisis but said it was “certainly a possibility” that more operations may have to be delayed if weather and flu-related emergency admissions rose.

Hospitals said the announcement masked the reality that many operations had already been delayed since November, with surgical beds used for A&E admissions. One said halting non-urgent operations would create a “massive bulge”. One London hospital boss said: “We are seeing about 500 people in our A&Es every day. The increase in really sick patients, those are the patients going to resuscitation, has gone up by 20 per cent compared to last winter.”

Princess Royal hospital in Orpington was yesterday forced to close to visitors due to a norovirus outbreak. Other hospitals in London have also been hit.

Today Mrs May said: “The NHS has been better prepared for this winter than ever before, we have put extra funding in. There are more beds available across the system, we’ve reduced the number of delayed discharges of elderly people who would otherwise have been in NHS beds rather than in social care.

“But I recognise for those people that have had their operations postponed this is disappointing, it’s frustrating. We will ensure that those operations are put back as soon as possible and once again I say that NHS staff are doing a fantastic job.” Mr Hunt said: “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.”

Dr Sarah Wollaston, Tory chairwoman of the Commons health select committee, said Mrs May and Chancellor Philip Hammond “need to get a better grip on understanding the sheer scale of the increase in demand across health and social care”. For Labour, the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “Instead of burying her head in the sand Theresa May needs to explain why she has allowed underfunding and cuts to health and social care to continue.”

John Kell, head of policy at the Patients Association, said the decision to postpone operations and allow the use of mixed-sex wards was “a sign of how hard winter pressures are hitting the NHS”. Niall Dickson said: “There was some extra money in the Budget but £335 million was frankly too little too late.”

Conditions are the worst I’ve seen in my whole career as a doctor, says MP

Verdict: Tooting MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan on duty at St George’s Hospital

London MP and A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan has described the conditions NHS staff are working in as the worst she has seen in her career.

The Labour MP for Tooting worked a 10-hour shift at St George’s Hospital on New Year’s Eve. She told the Standard there were queues out of the door to A&E, not enough bays for the number of sick children, a full waiting room and ambulances waiting to bring patients in.

She said: “I was treating a four-year-old who couldn’t stop vomiting but I had to ask her to move into the waiting room because I needed her bay to treat a baby with a rash. I would have loved to have kept her in the bay and decisions you have to make like that make you feel rotten.

“The conditions staff are working in are the worst I’ve seen in my career. And it’s our incredible staff that hold this NHS together — something the Government cannot take credit for.”

The announcement by the NHS that it is cancelling routine surgery for a month to cope with demands on hospitals needs to be explained to the British public by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, she said today.

“He should be providing an explanation,” she said. “The Government has driven our NHS so far into the ground that decisions like this are being made. What about the women who can’t care for their children because they have post-birthing complications?

“This isn’t life-threatening but for a women who is incontinent, her surgery will feel pretty urgent.”

Dr Allin-Khan, who worked as a doctor full-time for 12 years before winning the Tooting seat in a 2016 by-election, said operations likely to be cancelled include pelvic floor surgery, bladder prolapses, joint surgery, non-urgent hip replacement and non-urgent appendicitis.

“Those symptoms do not go away,” she said. “This puts pressure on GPs and people may then come into A&E when they can’t cope with the pain.”

Dr Allin-Khan continues to work as a doctor during parliamentary recess and will work another A&E shift on Sunday, the day before MPs return to Westminster.

Kate Proctor, Political Reporter