Jeremy Hunt has apologised to patients who have had operations delayed as a result of winter pressures in the NHS in England.
Tens of thousands of patients are expected to be affected after hospitals in England were told to postpone routine operations in January because of winter pressures.
In a drastic step to try to free up hospital staff and beds, NHS England said the deferral of non-urgent inpatient elective care – such as hip replacements – should be extended until January 31.
Officials have estimated that this could lead to up to 55,000 deferred operations, although cancer operations and time-critical procedures should go ahead as planned, NHS England said.
Theresa May said the health service is better prepared ”than ever before”.
Mr Hunt told Sky News: “There are real pressures, no question about it.
“This is the busiest week of the year for the NHS.
“What is different this year compared to last year is that [last year] 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’.
“And we recognise that it is better, if you are unfortunately going to have to cancel or postpone some operations, to do it in a planned way, and that’s why this year this independent panel has decided to take this decision.
“And that, I think, in the end, is better for people.
“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.”
Labour accused Jeremy Hunt of “doing a Grayling”, after the Health Secretary – like his Transport counterpart Chris Grayling – was unavailable for interviews on a day when his department came under additional scrutiny.
But Conservative MP and health select committee chair Sarah Wollaston admitted that it was right to describe the NHS as being in crisis.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the health service is “running at absolutely full stretch”.
Asked if it was right to describe the NHS as being in crisis, she replied: “Of course you would.”
Justin Madders, the shadow health minister, said: “Patients and staff deserve better than a Health Secretary doing a ‘Grayling’, going to ground and refusing to explain the appalling downturn in standards of care this winter.
“Instead of running scared, Jeremy Hunt must answer for his party’s sustained underfunding of our NHS which has already caused such misery right across the country. After five years in the job, he should be taking responsibility, not fleeing the scene.”
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The move comes after leading medics warned that every emergency department in the country is struggling to cope with winter pressures.
Some hospitals have declared themselves at the most severe pressure level while doctors warned that scores are operating at almost full capacity.
Meanwhile, a number of ambulance services are also under severe pressure, with two even resorting to taxis to ferry patients to hospital.
NHS England hopes the measures will free up senior hospital doctors to triage more patients in A&E, be available for phone advice for GPs and ensure that patients in hospitals are reviewed twice each day to help timely discharges.
The measures from the health body were announced following a meeting of its National Emergency Pressures Panel, chaired by Professor Sir Bruce Keogh.
In a statement, NHS England said that the panel discussed “sustained pressure over the Christmas period” with high levels of respiratory illness, high bed occupancy levels, signs of increased flu activity and a rise in the number of severe cases attending A&E.
Sir Bruce, NHS England national medical director, said: “We expect these pressures to continue and there are early signs of increased flu prevalence.
“The NHS needs to take further action to increase capacity and minimise disruptive last-minute cancellations. That is why we are making these further recommendations.”
On Twitter, Dr Richard Fawcett, an emergency medicine consultant working at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust, apologised to patients in the Stoke area for “3rd world conditions of the dept due to #overcrowding”.
Emergency medicine consultant Dr Adrian Boyle, chairman for quality at the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: “Everybody is struggling at the moment”.
“This means that ambulances are waiting outside emergency departments waiting to offload, the emergency departments are full, clinical staff are working extremely hard to try and look after these patients, often having to treat patients in corridors, people suffering lengthy delays.
“And we know that excessive crowding within emergency departments is associated with avoidable deaths.”
Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, added: “The position at the moment is as bad as I’ve ever known.”
Professor Keith Willett, director for acute care at NHS England, acknowledged the delay to planned operations and routine outpatient appointments until the end of the month due to severe winter pressures was “not ideal” for patients.
Prof Willett told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the NHS was “better prepared” and clear recommendations were being implemented to deal with pressures.
He said: “A crisis is when you haven’t got in place mitigations and you haven’t got a plan to deal with it.
“We’ve gone into this winter in a way that we’ve never prepared before, so we went into the winter before Christmas having cancelled fewer elective operations than we had previously, discharges from hospital were at a lower level than they had been previously, so we were better prepared.
“We’ve also set up a national, regional and local structure – if you like, a winter pressures protocol – which we are invoking now and we are monitoring a whole series of things, activity in the service and the pressures.
“We are monitoring the weather alerts in anticipation of weather changes because we know that’s important, and we also monitor the seasonal illnesses like flu.
“We’ve started to see those change, that’s why the National Emergency Pressures Panel has now come out with these clear recommendations.”