Bed occupancy rates in English hospitals remain well above safe limits, but fewer patients are facing long delays in ambulances, according to latest figures, suggesting the pressure may be easing.
In the week commencing 8 January, the NHS in England operated with a bed occupancy rate of 94.9% – almost 10% above the recommended safe level of 85%.
“Although we saw a very slight easing of pressures, NHS trusts are still working at or beyond full stretch”
During that week, hospitals used 4,626 “escalation beds”, compared to 2,430 in the week before Christmas – an increase of 90.3%, according to the latest weekly winter operational update from NHS England.
However, figures for ambulance handovers showed recovery. There were 12,600 delays of more than 30 minutes, down more than 4,000 from 16,700 the previous week.
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Responding to the weekly winter operational update, the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said: “These figures show conditions remain extremely challenging.
“Although we saw a very slight easing of pressures last week, NHS trusts are still working at or beyond full stretch, resulting – at times – in care for patients that falls short of what trusts and their staff want to provide,” she said.
“Accident and emergency departments took a step back from the precipice last week”
She said it was “encouraging” to see how trusts had worked to recover, with far fewer ambulance diverts and a significant drop in delays to hand over patients when they arrived at A&E.
But Ms Cordery noted that bed occupancy was still 10% higher than the recommended levels, and it was “worrying to see the figure for adult critical care beds at the highest level so far this winter”.
In addition, she warned that the impact of flu and cold weather remained a “serious concern”. “The worst of winter may be yet to come,” said Ms Cordery.
Seasonal influenza levels have continued to rise in the last week across the UK, according to Public Health England, with the country now experiencing the most significant flu season since 2010-11.
The latest PHE report revealed that over the last week – ending on 14 January – there had been an 11% increase in the flu hospitalisation rate and a 42% increase in the GP consultation rate.
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Repeating a warning from earlier in the month, Ms Cordery added: “It is clear we have reached a watershed moment. We need decisions in place on a long-term funding solution for health and social care no later than the autumn budget. Our staff, and patients, deserve nothing less.”
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “England’s accident and emergency departments took a step back from the precipice last week.
“However, the squeeze on beds is showing no sign of abating,” she said. “Hospitals are full to bursting and patients are waiting in chairs, corridors and even on the floor for space on a ward.
Ms Davies highlighted this week’s high-profile BBC story suggesting that “soaring numbers of nurses” felt unable to continue to work for the NHS due to the pressures they faced.
“Without stemming the losses and hiring more staff, the current winter crisis could soon become year-round,” she warned.