Twelve trusts hit 100% bed occupancy, meaning they had none left for new patients
The British Medical Association (BMA) said the latest figures on hospital capacity showed “just how difficult it is for hospitals to operate effectively right now”.
Hospitals across the country were potentially dangerously busy in the week to 9 January, with 93.1% of general and acute beds occupied at any one time on average, NHS England data shows.
General and acute beds are for people admitted from A&E, by their GP, or who are recovering after surgery.
The safe occupancy limit is normally considered to be 85%, after which point patient care may be compromised.
But almost nine out of 10 trusts in England (88% of them) were operating above this threshold during the week, with twelve running out of beds on at least one occasion.
A further 82 trusts (more than half, or 59% of the total) hit 95% occupancy at least once. The worst single day came on Wednesday 5 January, with average occupancy across the country hitting 94.3%.
It was a significant deterioration on the previous week, when 81% of hospital trusts were above the safe threshold. In the week to 2 January, only five trusts ran out of beds at any point.
Dr Vishal Sharma, BMA consultants committee chair, said: “Patients expect and deserve high-quality care whenever they visit a hospital, and that starts with being able to offer them a bed and a physician without delay – the very basics of modern healthcare.
“To not be able to guarantee that is a mark on this Government’s record, and action must be taken to get control of this virus before irreversible damage to our service is done.”
The hospitals that struggled for beds the most in the week to 9 January were the George Eliot Hospital Trust in Nuneaton and the North West’s Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Trust, both of which hit 100% occupancy on four days.
The health think tank Nuffield Trust says hospitals “cannot operate at 100% occupancy” as spare beds are needed to manage peaks in demand.
The full list of affected trusts is:
- East and North Hertfordshire Trust – 100% on one day
- North West Anglia Foundation Trust – 100% on three days
- North Middlesex University Hospital Trust – 100% on three days
- George Eliot Hospital Trust – 100% on four days
- Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals Trust – 100% on one day
- Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – 100% on one day
- Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust – 100% on three days
- Bolton NHS Foundation Trust – 100% on one day
- St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals Trust – 100% on one day
- Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust – 100% on four days
- Portsmouth Hospitals University Trust – 100% on one day
- University Hospitals Bristol and Weston Foundation Trust – 100% on one day
Daily occupancy levels are a snapshot taken at 8am each day.
The data is published as part of a weekly ‘winter pressure’ report from NHS England.
But Doctors’ Association UK, a professional body run by frontline doctors, said the health service was not just in a ‘winter crisis’ but rather experiencing a long-running crisis caused by years of “neglect and underfunding”.
"People on the frontline are leaving in ever-greater numbers because the workload is simply impossible, making clinical situations even more risky and risking the vicious circle of burnout, empty posts and yet more burnout,” a Doctors Association spokesperson said.
“The NHS was already ill prepared and chronically under-staffed before Covid hit. Covid has acted in a syndemic fashion, magnifying any existing pressures on NHS capacity, just as it has acted on existing forms of health inequality.”
The number of NHS hospital beds in England has more than halved over the last 30 years, according to the King’s Fund think tank, with the NHS home to fewer acute beds than almost any other comparable health system, relative to population size.
The Nuffield Trust says high bed occupancy levels can increase delays in A&E, cause patients to be placed on clinically inappropriate wards, and increase the rate of hospital-acquired infections. Pressure on staff to free up beds can also pose a risk to patient safety.
Hospitals may feel the pressure at lower occupancy that in previous years because of the need to treat Covid patients separately to others.
Increasingly busy wards have come at a time when unprecedented numbers of NHS staff are off work due to Covid.
In the week to 9 January, 88,516 workers were off each day on average from acute hospital trusts alone, 45,736 of which were sick with coronavirus or self isolating.
The number of absences were up by 10.2% in a week. Absences due to Covid were up by 28.5%.
A rule change will see the self isolation period in England cut to just five days from Monday. From then on people will be able to free themselves with two consecutive negative lateral flow tests on day five and six.
NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “Omicron has increased the number of people in hospital with covid at the same time as drastically reducing the number of staff who are able to work.
“Despite this, once again, NHS staff pulled out all the stops to keep services going for patients.
“But staff aren’t machines and with the number of Covid absences almost doubling over the last fortnight and frontline NHS colleagues determined to get back to providing even more routine treatments, it is vital that the public plays their part to help the NHS by getting your booster vaccine, if you haven’t already.
“And as has been the case throughout the pandemic, if you have a health problem, please go to 111 online and call 999 when it is a life-threatening condition – the NHS is here for you.”
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