More than half of hospitals have opened extra beds to help them cope with the NHS winter crisis amid an influx of patients with potentially fatal breathing problems.
Many of the so-called escalation beds are already occupied by people suffering from flu, pneumonia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbated by the arrival of very cold weather in many parts of the UK.
The British Thoracic Society (BTS), which represents specialist lung doctors, has found that 52% of UK hospitals have already created extra bed capacity to help them prepare for the imminent surge in winter demand.
In addition, almost half (48%) have kept open and are still using the overflow beds they created last winter, in a sign that the sustained pressure the NHS is under is not confined to December, January and February.
“As the winter season starts, life is already really tough at the coal-face of the NHS,” said Prof Jon Bennett, the chair of the BTS.
“It’s a sign of the intense year-round pressure that the NHS is under that more than half of hospitals have already opened extra ‘winter beds’ to help them cope with the cold season – and that many haven’t closed them from last year.
“We are already hearing of rising numbers of people being admitted to hospital with potentially fatal lung and breathing problems who require specialist support.
“[While] an under-resourced NHS lung workforce is working tirelessly to provide the best possible care in the circumstances … we just can’t carry on like this long term.”
The findings, which are from a survey of 69 senior doctors who head up lung care services in hospitals, reflect the situation in the whole NHS, he said.
Meanwhile, one of the country’s leading NHS experts has warned that flu, Brexit, the general election and the doctors’ pensions dispute are set to combine to create a “perfect storm” of pressures this winter.
“In recent years the NHS has defied the odds and somehow managed to cope despite warnings about the impact of winter pressures. This time it is heading into what is likely to be the worst winter since modern records began in the eye of a perfect storm,” said Siva Anandaciva in a new blog.
“The NHS is heading into winter in unusually bad shape” because it has not had any respite from an unusually busy summer and also because ministers have provided no extra money for winter pressures, he added.
“Most clinicians I speak to are anxious about the prospects of the punishing early and severe flu season in Australia” – which resulted in the largest number of confirmed flu cases there for a decade, he said.
The Guardian disclosed last week that hospitals in England have the smallest number of beds available on record.
NHS England admitted recently that bed occupancy figures in July, August and September were the worst for the time of year since records began.
Last month Northampton general hospital “reluctantly” cancelled unspecified numbers of planned, non-urgent operations over the next few months to help it cope with winter. Other NHs trusts are likely to follow suit, in order to keep enough beds open for patients who need to be admitted over coming weeks because they have fallen and broken a limb or developed a serious breathing problem.
NHS trusts and NHS England have taken unprecedented steps to minimise the disruption winter will bring by rolling out the biggest-ever flu vaccination programme, freeing up beds occupied by those who are fit enough to go home and improving the 111 telephone advice service.