The latest NHS situation report makes for grim reading and lays bare the acute pressure the health service is under.
New data released today show that the NHS is struggling with a surge in flu cases and a lack of space for new patients.
Reports of people waiting up to 33 hours in hospital corridors and patients sleeping in cars due to a lack of beds seem to be borne out by by the latest figures, which show that ambulance handover delays have hit a new high.
The situation has become so grave that the NHS has been described as being “on the point of collapse” — a reality that has forced thousands of nurses and ambulance workers out on strike.
What do the figures say?
The latest figures show that ambulance delays have hit a record high, with 44% of patients waiting 30 minutes to be treated.
More than a quarter waited over an hour to be handed to A&E teams.
Meanwhile, there was an average of 5,105 flu patients in general hospital beds last week — up 47% on the previous week and nearly seven times the number at the start of December.
Patients in critical care beds have also jumped sharply, up 26% week-on-week from 267 to 336.
It represents a massive jump on last year, when just 38 patients were in hospital with flu and only two in critical care.
The number of deaths registered in England and Wales in the week before Christmas was also 20% higher than the five-year average.
This was largely due to cases of influenza and pneumonia increasing in recent weeks, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
And the struggle the NHS has to discharge patients out of hospital once they are well — due to a lack of social care provision in the community — is revealed by figures showing that an average of 12,809 beds a day last week were filled with patients who were ready to leave.
That is up almost a third on the figure for this time last year, when there were 9,858 beds that were occupied that did not need to be.
What have health leaders said?
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents the healthcare system in England, said the report “underlines the stark reality of the pressures that NHS leaders, their staff and patients are enduring”.
“As they wearily enter a new year, our members say they continue to manage crisis conditions with inherent risks to patient safety as the prospect of sustained industrial action looms large.”
He warned that delays in discharging healthy patients meant that “we will continue to see patients held in hospital corridors as they wait for a bed to become free, ambulances queuing outside of hospitals which will lengthen waiting times and the danger of more patients being discharged into inappropriate settings because hospitals are desperate to free up beds”.
Sir Stephen Powis, the NHS national medical director for England, said this winter was proving to be “one of the most difficult in the history of the NHS” due to “record demand” on services caused by flu and Covid.
And the Royal College of Nursing — whose members are due to strike again on January 18 and 19 — took aim at the government for being “detached from the reality of the situation”.
The RCN’s director for England, Patricia Marquis, said: “Our NHS is at the point of collapse but we have a prime minister who is detached from the reality of the situation.
“Bed occupancy rates are running at dangerous levels – around 95% – with every square inch of hospital space being used to add more patients, yet there are not more nursing staff to treat the ever growing number of those who need care.
“Hospitals are having to expand into corridors while patients sleep in their cars because there are no beds. There is simply no slack in the system and precious few nursing staff.
“At the same time there are almost 90,000 patients who are fit to be discharged but there aren’t the community and social care staff to care for them.
“We are urging the government to show a renewed sense of urgency in opening negotiations on the current NHS pay award – fair pay is the only way to recruit and retain the nursing staff we need.”
What has the government said?
The prime minister today acknowledged the “enormous pressure” the NHS is under.
“The NHS is obviously under enormous pressure as we recover from Covid and I have enormous admiration for all the people working incredibly hard in the NHS right now to help get us through that,” he said.
“We are supporting them with billions of pounds of extra funding but in particular this winter what we want to do is make sure we move people out of hospitals into social care, into communities – that is one of the most powerful ways we can ease some of the pressures on A&E departments and ambulances that are waiting too long.”
Meanwhile, on the nurses’ strikes, health secretary Steve Barclay said he was “keen to have dialogue” with the RCN.
However, he did not respond to questions about whether he would accept the RCN’s latest compromise of a 10% pay rise.