Flu: patients in hospital nearly treble in two weeks as pressures mount on NHS frontline in England

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NHS chief warns of “enormous pressure” on frontline hospital services

A severe flu outbreak has seen the number of patients in English hospitals nearly treble in a fortnight, new figures show.

The NHS is now facing “enormous pressure” on a number of fronts, national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis has warned. He cited the rising flu cases as well as the impact of strikes by nurses and paramedics, increasing staff sickness levels and a near-record number of calls to non-emergency advice line 111.

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He urged people to get a flu vaccine if they were eligible and said that with more industrial action scheduled for next week, there would be further disruption ahead.

The figures published today show the wide-ranging set of pressures faced by the NHS ahead of Christmas, particularly the impact of viruses and infections circulating again in the first winter since coronavirus restrictions were lifted.

There were an average of 2,088 beds taken up by flu patients each day last week, including 149 in critical care beds, NHS figures show. This is nearly three times the number two weeks before, when the daily average stood at 772.

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In the same week last year, the NHS only had two flu patients a day in critical care and 32 in general and acute beds. Flu can be a deadly virus, especially for elderly people. Earlier this month, hospitalisations for flu overtook those for Covid-19 for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Flu and pneumonia also now cause far more deaths than Covid-19.

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As well as the growing number of beds occupied by flu and Covid-19 patients, last week hospitals also had to accommodate more than 13,000 patients each day who were medically fit to leave but were unable to do so.

Hospitals remain very full, with on average 19 out of every 20 beds occupied so far this winter. This is despite the creation of 10,000 more beds since last year, adding 10% to capacity.

A severe flu outbreak has seen the number of patients in English hospitals nearly treble in a fortnight, new figures showA severe flu outbreak has seen the number of patients in English hospitals nearly treble in a fortnight, new figures show
A severe flu outbreak has seen the number of patients in English hospitals nearly treble in a fortnight, new figures show | Mark Hall/NationalWorld

High demand for NHS 111

There’s also been a near-record demand for the non-emergency 111 service, with 721,301 calls made last week, up almost 60% on the same week in 2021. The rise in demand is understood to be partly driven by parents concerned about symptoms of Strep A infection, which has led to the deaths of at least 19 children and teenagers across the UK in recent months.

Staff sickness absence rises

There was also an average of 60,583 absences due to staff sickness every day last week, up almost a fifth on last month. The number of staff off work because of Covid has risen by a third since mid-November to 7,218 a day, compared to 5,454 in the week ending 20 November.

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‘It is clear that the NHS is facing enormous pressure ahead of Christmas’

Prof Powis said: “As well as the impact of industrial action last week, it is clear that the NHS is facing enormous pressure ahead of Christmas with the number of flu cases in hospital and in intensive care rising week-on-week, on top of significant increases in staff sickness rates and near-record demand for services like 111.

“Despite this, NHS staff continue to deliver a significant amount for patients - dealing with near record 111 calls as well as continuing to make progress on covid-19 backlogs. With more industrial action scheduled for next week, there will be disruption but we urge the public to continue to use services wisely by continuing to call 999 for life-threatening emergencies, use 111 online for other health conditions, and take sensible steps to keep yourself and others safe.”

He said the NHS has prepared for winter “extensively”, with more beds, extra call handlers and the expansion of falls response services, control centres and respiratory hubs. However, he added that with with flu hospitalisations and Covid cases on the rise “the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to get vaccinated if you’re eligible”.

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