The NHS is struggling under what doctors and nurses are calling the most intense strain it has faced in decades.
And even despite people being urged to keep away from A&E, the demand is too high and patients are waiting up to 12 hours to be seen.
So much so, that urgent cases like Leah Butler-Smith’s mother who suffered a stroke are being forced to wait around outside the hospital in ambulances, as doctors do their best inside to ease the pressure.
Leah Butler-Smith had reached the end of her tether when she posted on Facebook about the struggle the NHS is facing: ‘So we are tenth outside all in ambulances containing patients currently waiting to be admitted to the hospital,’ she said.
Waiting outside Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex, she wrote:
‘My mother has a fever and has had a stroke. There are 25 or more ambulances and urgent patients waiting outside at this hospital alone. We have consultants wandering around the ambulances trying to ascertain what they can do. So you can imagine – knowing we’ve got hours and hours of waiting with mumsy in a serious condition and seeing the stress of the staff who are overwhelmed and deeply hurt that this is happening to their patients and to them!
‘They are amazing and seriously kind but hearing the facts of what they deal with day in and day out is heartbreaking. The hospital can not redirect patients to any other hospital as none will accept them.
‘Not overburdened, not in crisis?’
An hour into the ambulance wait, Ms Butler-Smith decided to start live-streaming her experience on Facebook. She told Yahoo News: ‘There was a nurse coming round taking stats and telling people what number in the queue they were.
‘She came over to us and said we were number 10. I didn’t know what number any other ambulance was but I knew one was a road traffic accident with a man screaming in agony inside.
‘It was horrible. We were waiting and my mother was still possibly bleeding on her brain, she could have been getting worse right then and we didn’t know. At that point she was showing no improvements.
‘The ambulance staff said there were 73 people still in their homes at the time waiting for an ambulance to get to them.
‘At the time, there were 25 patients outside the hospital waiting in 13 ambulances.
‘They said this was common and sometimes staff would wait six to eight hours overnight in the ambulance. It’s devastating for the people there.’
Broomfield Hospital is not the first to reach this level of desperation.
Debbie McCrossan, 52, from Bournemouth described how her 71-year-old mother suffered in ‘absolute agony’ waiting around eight hours for an ambulance to take her to Poole A&E.
After calling for an ambulance at 2pm after her mother dislocated her hip, the pair finally arrived at A&E at 10pm.
Ms McCrossan told the Press Association the ordeal made her ‘feel so sick’.
She said: ‘They (ambulance staff) couldn’t have been more apologetic, explaining they were ever so busy with people having strokes and heart attacks.
‘As mum was “responding appropriately” unfortunately she was not a priority. I sat with her the whole day and it was absolute agony for her each time she moved.’
She said once inside A&E both she and her daughter had to help with the bedpan owing to a lack of staff.
Ms McCrossan added: ‘I can’t fault Poole A&E for the service, it was abundantly clear they were completely rushed off their feet.
‘In 2014 I had breast cancer and the NHS were wonderful and I know the doctors and nurses work tirelessly to give patients the best care. But I fear they are climbing a slippery slope and we are on the verge of having a third world health service.’
Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS medical director, ordered every hospital in the UK to cancel outpatient appointments and day case surgeries until February to ease the pressure, while inside, makeshift wards have been created in the face of overcrowding.
Sir Bruce said: ‘I want to thank NHS staff who have worked incredibly hard under sustained pressure to take care of patients over the Christmas. 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.’
By Tuesday night 12 NHS trusts – including two ambulance services covering almost nine million people – had said they had reached the maximum state of emergency.
Many have already called a ‘black alert’ – an official declaration that they cannot help.
The 10 hospitals on ‘black alert’, which is the highest on a four-point scale of ‘Operational Pressures Escalation Levels’ used to bring emergency plans into motion when patient safety is at risk, are:
Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust
Royal Cornwall Hospitals
Portsmouth Hospitals NHS
Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells
Medway NHS Foundation Trust
University Hospitals Of Leicester
Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals
Taunton & Somerset Foundation Trust
Yeovil District Hospital Foundation Trust
Royal United Hospitals Bath
Dr Richard Fawcett, a senior doctor in emergency medicine at the Royal Stoke hospital in Staffordshire, tweeted on Tuesday: ‘As an A&E consultant at University of North Midlands NHS Trust I personally apologise to the people of Stoke for the third world conditions of the department due to overcrowding.’
Southend hospital in Essex called an ‘internal critical incident’ on Tuesday after Dr Neil Rothnie, its medical director, said the hospital had ‘no medical or surgical beds’ left.
A spokesperson for Mid Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust, which covers Broomfield Hospital, told Yahoo News UK: ‘The trust declared an internal significant incident yesterday as a result of the very high demand for our services that we have experienced over the extended holiday period, in common with hospitals across the whole country.
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‘Our teams continue to work extremely hard providing high quality, safe patient care while under continued pressure, ensuring that patients are assessed, triaged and treated as appropriate.’
Yesterday, while on a visit to Wokingham, Prime Minister Theresa May was asked how she would classify the state of the NHS, if not in a crisis. She 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.’
However average bed occupancy across all trusts jumped to 91.7 per cent between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve compared to 90 per cent occupancy in the same week last year, analysis by The Independent shows.
The recommended safe operating levels are lower at 85% occupancy.
After repeatedly denying the NHS is currently facing a crisis, Health Minister Jeremy Hunt appeared to backtrack in a tweet to Tony Blair.
He said: ‘Tony Blair’s memory is as selective in office as out of office: does he not remember his own regular NHS winter crises? Perhaps he was too focused on joining the euro to give his full attention to the NHS…’
The government invested an additional £437 million this year along with £1 billion extra social care funding this year.