The number of hospital beds has fallen to its lowest level ever, despite the head of the NHS warning that bed closures have gone too far.
The health service in England has cut so many beds in recent years that it has just 127,225 left to cope with the rising demand for care, which will intensify as winter starts to bite.
In total, 17,230 beds have been cut from the 144,455 that existed in April-June 2010, the period when the coalition Conservative/Liberal Democrat government took office and imposed a nine-year funding squeeze on the NHS, even though critics cautioned against it because of growing pressures on the service.
The 127,225 figure is the smallest number of beds available in acute hospitals, maternity centres and units specialising in the care of patients with mental health problems and learning disabilities since records began in 1987/88.
The figures have emerged in the middle of an election campaign in which the NHS has proved to be a dominant issue, with the parties trading promises on funding and measures to tackle widespread understaffing.
The disclosure – uncovered by a Labour analysis of official bed numbers from NHS Digital – triggered warnings from medical bodies that the loss of so many beds would damage the quality of care patients receive and leave hospitals even more “jammed” than they are already.
It came amid growing signs that hospitals will struggle this winter, such as ambulances queuing outside A&E units for long periods to bring in patients and outbreaks of the winter vomiting bug norovirus forcing wards to be closed and patients moved.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, blamed the ongoing drop in beds for the huge spike in the number of patients forced to wait sometimes more than 12 hours after a decision to admit them before they can get a bed.
“These Tory bed cuts are a total disgrace. Under the Tories, hospital beds have plummeted to the lowest levels on record while thousands, like 90-year-old war veteran Brian Fish, are forced to endure the indignity of 10 hours on a hospital trolley because there aren’t enough hospital beds,” said Ashworth.
Dr Sue Crosland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said the loss of beds made it harder for hospital staff to provide proper care.
“Bed reduction and fast turnover is a major risk to patients across the NHS, with hospital-acquired infection rates increased by over-occupancy and quick turnarounds,” she said.
“When bed occupancy is very high the chain of movement becomes jammed, like a motorway with lots of traffic.
“This leads to a reduction in the quality of overall care and results in compromises such as cleaning spaces between patients and increased risk of emergency readmission.”
The number of beds in general and acute hospitals has fallen from 110,568 in April-June 2010 to 100,406 in the same period this year.
The number of mental health beds has dropped by more than 5,000 over that time from 23,515 to 18,179 despite the ongoing scandal of patients being sent hundreds of miles from home because no bed is available locally.
The continuing fall has occurred despite Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, telling service chiefs in June that bed cuts should stop because they were leaving hospitals unable to cope with the number of people who need to be admitted.
Dr Rob Harwood, chair of the British Medical Association’s consultants committee, said: “It is extremely worrying that despite the BMA’s warning of a year ago that 10,000 extra beds were needed, the numbers of hospital beds had actually fallen to a new record low.
“These figures show the seriousness of the situation confronting patients this winter and can only add to the day-to-day struggles faced by our NHS frontline staff.”
Health experts said that bed occupancy rates should not exceed 85% in order to ensure patient safety and quality of care. But some hospitals saw 95% of their beds full over both the summer and this autumn, when demand had been unusually high.
Labour will order a moratorium on bed closures if it wins the election on 12 December, Ashworth said.
“The chronic capacity issues mean doctors are struggling to provide safe care for a growing number of patients with many, as a result, facing increasingly lengthy waits in emergency rooms or hospital corridors,” added Harwood.