Swine flu- NHS hospitals gridlocked
The NHS is in “gridlock”, with hospitals across the country being forced to declare that they have reached the highest level of emergency because of flu and other winter viruses.
Britain’s most senior accident and emergency doctor said that four weeks of intense pressures had left casualty departments “overwhelmed” with patients.
He said desperately sick people had been left for hours waiting on trolleys, with even those requiring intensive care enduring long delays.
Dozens of NHS units have cancelled surgery and clinics for outpatients.
At least 10 major centres issued “black alerts” — the highest emergency warning — meaning they were at breaking point, forcing patients to be sent elsewhere.
Scores of hospital wards closed due to norovirus, the winter vomiting bug, which put more than 1,200 beds out of use in one week as nurses attempted to isolate the disease.
Hospitals in Cambridge and Norfolk were on “black alert” for more than two weeks. In the past 10 days, major hospitals in London, Liverpool, Surrey, Southampton, Peterborough, Derby, King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth issued the same warning.
While many hospitals did not schedule non-emergency surgery during the Christmas and New Year period, in the past week dozens cancelled thousands of planned operations.
Routine surgery was stopped at hospitals in Leicester, Sheffield, Macclesfield, Middlesbrough, Northallerton, Durham, Darlington, Bassetlaw, Belfast, Portsmouth, south Wales and many parts of London.
Last night it was disclosed that two boys, aged two and 10 months, had died from swine flu in Northern Ireland.
John Heyworth, the president of the College of Emergency Medicine, said: “We have seen A&Es absolutely overwhelmed, with people queuing on trolleys and long delays even for those being admitted to intensive care. The hospitals are gridlocked.”
He expressed anger about the failure of Government and the NHS to develop sufficient contingency plans, given that a flu outbreak was widely anticipated following the swine flu pandemic in 2009. “My frustration is that so much of this is predictable. This did not come out of the blue and yet the planning is inadequate — as though there is a sense of denial about it. The planning this winter has been far less effective than last year.”
Mr Heyworth claimed that casualty units had been hit by a “dramatic surge” in demand not just because of an increase in the number of very sick patients suffering flu complications, but also because less serious cases went to A&E because they could not see a GP at evenings or weekends.
“In many parts of the country out-of-hours services are absolutely inadequate, so what we get is people turning up at A&E simply because they do not know where else to go, or else they delay and only seek help when their condition is serious,” said Mr Heyworth. It is not good enough. We are failing the public.”
Across the country, hospitals were struggling to cope. Southampton General Hospital spent more than three weeks on “black alert”, closing 10 wards as norovirus swept through the centre. It was forced to stop all non-emergency surgery and cancel most appointments for outpatients during the period. The crisis warning was finally lifted on Thursday.
Because of the same bug, four wards were closed at Royal Cornwall Hospital last week and cancer and surgery wards in Poole, Dorset, were closed to new admissions. Three wards were closed at West Suffolk hospital.
On Thursday, it was disclosed that the number of deaths from flu had almost doubled, with 110 deaths this winter.
Hospitals were already struggling to cope with an increased number of elderly patients needing surgery following falls during the big freeze when they were hit by rising influenza admissions and cases of norovirus.
The latest figures for England showed that in the week ending last Sunday, 23 casualty units were filled to capacity, forcing ambulances carrying emergency patients to take desperately sick people miles further for treatment.
The Government was criticised by influenza experts for failing to introduce a national public advertising campaign about the perils of swine flu until Jan 1, by which time the outbreak was on course to hit epidemic levels.
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, said: “It is really worrying that the NHS is not prepared to deal with these sorts of pressures. The system is on a knife-edge, and it does not have enough slack in it to cope once we have an outbreak of flu and cases of norovirus.”
She said the charity was “inundated” with calls from elderly people who had their operations cancelled and had not been given a date for the surgery to go ahead.
“What concerns me even more is that this is happening at a time when the health service is gearing up to make major savings, and massive reforms,” said Ms Murphy.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said there was always more pressure on the NHS at this time of year and insisted that the service had been prepared and was coping well.
“This year’s flu has resulted in greater than usual numbers of patients requiring critical care,” he said.
“Where necessary, local NHS organisations have increased their critical care capacity, in part by delaying routine operations requiring critical care back-up. This is a normal operational process which is initiated by NHS organisations at the local level.”
Tags: Accident and Emergency, black alert, intensive care, NHS Deaths, nhs waiting times, Patients' Association, swine flu