NHS winter crisis forces May to apologise for operation delays
Huge surgery backlog and increase in flu cases puts hospitals under pressure
Theresa May felt compelled to apologise to the tens of thousands of people whose operations have been postponed amid one of NHS England’s worst winter crises, as new figures laid bare the scale of the challenge faced by hospitals.
The prime minister’s unprecedented apology came as it was revealed that 16,900 people – the highest number this winter – had been left in the backs of ambulances waiting to enter an A&E unit in the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.
Separate official figures showed that 24 patients died of flu in the same week after a sudden surge in cases of the virus. The fatalities mean 48 people died of flu from the start of October up to the end of the year – more than double the 23 who did so in the same period last year.
On a visit to Frimley Park hospital in Camberley, Surrey, May thanked NHS staff for their hard work but refused to say if she believed the service was in crisis. However, she said: “I recognise that it is difficult if someone is delayed on their admission to hospital, or if somebody has an operation postponed. And we will hope to ensure that those operations can be reinstated as soon as possible. I know it’s difficult, I know it’s frustrating, and I know it’s disappointing for people, and I apologise,” she told Sky News.
May’s apology contrasted with her stance last Wednesday when, unlike health secretary Jeremy Hunt, she failed to apologise for the inconvenience of cancelled treatment. Instead she maintained that the NHS was the best prepared it had ever been to withstand the rigours of winter.
The number of deaths from flu in the last week of 2017 was a big increase on the seven deaths across the UK in the week before Christmas. The figures, released by Public Health England (PHE), underline how flu is now adding significantly to the heavy pressures on the NHS as it confronts a winter crisis that doctors and NHS bosses say is the worst for many years.
Labour claimed Hunt had in effect admitted that the NHS’s predicament constituted a crisis. Responding to remarks by former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, Hunt tweeted: “Tony Blair’s memory is as selective in office as out of office: does he not remember his own regular NHS winter crises? Perhaps he was too focused on joining the euro to give his full attention to the NHS.”
Justin Madders, a shadow health minister, commented: “After coming out of hiding to offer a half-hearted apology yesterday, Jeremy Hunt’s guilty conscience has now resulted in an inadvertent admission to the winter crisis. Will the next stage on this journey of self-discovery include a realisation that he has been health secretary for the past five years and might therefore bear some responsibility for the current crisis?”
The 114 people admitted to an intensive care or high-dependency unit from 25-31 December with flu symptoms means 355 required such help since October, a big rise on the 246 in the same 12 weeks last year. A total of 1,078 people have been admitted to hospital with flu in England in the 12 weeks leading up to 31 December – almost three times the 366 admitted in the same period in 2016-17. The number consulting a GP with flu-like symptoms is also at what PHE says is “above seasonally expected levels”.
Dr Richard Pebody, PHE’s acting head of respiratory disease, renewed the call for people to have a flu jab as soon as possible. Experts say this year’s vaccine should protect against the influenza A (H3N2) strain that has been wreaking havoc in Australia.
Saffron Cordery, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said: “The growing impact of flu comes as services are already at or beyond full stretch.”
Full stop … in one week 16,900 patients endured waits in ambulances