NHS win­ter cri­sis forces May to apol­o­gise for op­er­a­tion de­lays

Huge surgery back­log and in­crease in flu cases puts hos­pi­tals un­der pres­sure

The Guardian Weekly - - UK News - De­nis Camp­bell

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

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