Scores of NHS hospitals completely full during first week of January

NHS hospitals reported that every single one of their beds was full on 78 occasions in the first week of January, as winter pressures drove average levels of bed occupancy across England to a new high.

NHS under pressure (Photo: iStock)
NHS under pressure (Photo: iStock)

The figures are the latest to reveal the depth of the winter crisis facing the NHS. GPonline reported this week that GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey believed this winter was the worst he had seen in 30 years working in NHS general practice.

GP leaders have warned that practices are already operating at or beyond the limit of their capacity, and that the winter crisis is driving up workload in primary care. NHS England has cancelled all elective hospital care until the end of January, leaving practices facing additional appointments from patients affected by delays on top of seasonal pressure.

Cases of flu are rising - with the number of cases requiring hospitalisation up last week to 2.5 times the level at the same time last year. Updated statistics on flu are expected later today - if they cohfirm that levels have moved beyond the 'low' category for the first time this winter, GP practices could face unbearable pressure.

The latest hospital data show that across England, 95% of hospital beds were full on average throughout the first week of January - far in excess of the 85% target that experts consider safe, and significantly up from the 91.9% average occupancy reported the week before.

Winter pressure

Analysis by GPonline found one in seven of the 137 hospital trusts covered by weekly updates from NHS England averaged 99% or higher bed occupancy throughout the first week of January, and there were 78 cases in which a hospital reported being full for a day.

The government has come under significant pressure over the winter crisis, with Theresa May repeating in parliament on Wednesday that the NHS was better prepared than ever before for seasonal pressure despite the growing crisis. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, however, said that the prime minister had simply been 'too weak' to sack the health secretary.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a debate later the same day that the NHS would need 'significantly more funding' in the years after the Five Year Foward View period came to an end.

An NHS England spokesman said: 'Despite the clear pressure on the NHS in December, with rising levels of flu and record numbers of 111 calls and hospital admissions, we managed to hold A&E performance at the same level as last January.

'We also saw the best seasonal performance on NHS Delayed Transfers of Care in four years, and went into winter with cancer and routine surgery waits both showing improvements.'

GP leaders have called for the suspension of QOF to ease pressure on primary care and the CQC has cancelled inspections on practices rated good or outstanding that were scheduled for January.

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