At the start of the NHS’s 70th birthday patients and staff are currently experiencing the worst winter crisis on record.
So far this winter up to 100,000 patients have waited to be seen for over 30 minutes in the back of ambulances or in parts of hospitals – including corridors. Bed occupancy has averaged at a staggering 93.5% when the NHS ‘safe’ level is 85%.
This month NHS England took the unprecedented decision of deferring non-urgent operations until the end of January, a sure sign that the health service has been left ill-prepared for the additional, yet predictable, strain on services as temperatures drop. Officials estimate that up to 55,000 procedures will be affected, with likely knock-on effects into February.
Yet all Theresa May has offered in response is a half-hearted apology and an entirely unfounded claim that the NHS is “better prepared” for winter than ever before.
The heads of more than 60 Accident and Emergency units recently wrote to the prime minister saying that 120 patients a day were being managed in some hospital corridors with ‘some dying prematurely’. They said this was because the NHS is ‘chronically underfunded’, unprepared for winter, and dangerously short staffed.
Leading doctors and healthcare practitioners have also been speaking out about the extent of the winter crisis. An A&E consultant in at the Royal Stoke tweeted an apology for the “third world conditions” of the department due to overcrowding.
Tracy Bullock, Chief Executive of Mid Cheshire Hospitals NHS Trust, said, “I’m 34 years – in and I’ve never seen anything like this.” Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, a practicing GP and Chair of the Health Select Committee, warned that Theresa May must “get a better grip”
Pressures on staff can be seen in the latest statistics. Monthly figures from NHS England show that in December only 77.3% of patients attending major A&E units were seen within four hours, against a target of 95%. This is the worst record since records began.
At Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Hospital Trust the figure was 82.6%, still significantly below the national target. In Kent over Christmas week 25% of patients arriving to hospital by ambulance waited more than 30 minutes to be seen. In England as a whole the figure was 12%.
With the flu season now underway across pressures on intensive care units are only set to increase. For the NHS the winter has only just started.
Labour has warned repeatedly that the NHS funding squeeze imposed by the Government is damaging standards of patient care. It is why we offered record levels of funding for the NHS in our manifesto and guaranteed the main 4-hour A&E target would finally be met again consistently.
The simple truth is that the prime minister failed to allocate sufficient winter funding to tackle the expected spike in demand during the coldest period of the year. Theresa May must finally give the NHS the support and resources it urgently needs and explain what she’s going to do to make sure patients and their families never suffer a winter crisis like this ever again.