What’s Causing Britain’s NHS Winter Crisis?

Recent BBC footage from the Royal Blackburn Hospital shows patients on trolleys clogging corridors, busy staff wiping sweat from their foreheads, and grateful patients hugging exhausted nurses and doctors.

One man said he’d been “queueing for five hours. It’s not what you expect from a country like ours, is it?”

A doctor admitted he hadn’t seen anything like it in his 26 years in the NHS.   

Britain’s NHS Is Facing an Unprecedented Winter Crisis

Winter pressures on the service have led to NHS England cancelling all non-urgent operations in January – resulting in around 55,000 procedures being delayed. Routine outpatient appointments have also been cancelled.

Hospitals are supposed to have no more than 85% of their beds full at any time, but some hospitals have reached 98% or even 99.9% capacity.

In the House of Commons, Labour MP Tracy Brabin described how one of her constituents had taken photos of people sleeping on hospital floors. Brabin said, “There were poorly people in chairs waiting for hours, not being given a bed or trolley.”

But what issues could be causing the NHS winter crisis, why are Britain’s hospitals so overstretched and why do things seem worse than in previous years? Four of the main factors are listed below:

Bed Blocking and the Social Care Crisis

An aging population, coupled with enormous government cuts to the social care budget, has led to the issue of ‘bed blocking’. Hospitals are often unable to discharge elderly or vulnerable patients because there are insufficient resources to care for them in the community.

Bed blocking has the knock-on effect of ambulance staff having to queue with their patients in corridors while waiting for beds to be freed up. This becomes especially acute in winter as demand for medical services surges.

Last year, Dr Taj Hassan, president of the Royal College for Emergency Medicine, told Radio Four’s Today programme, “There is an urgent need to address the patients who are fit to be discharged from hospital, which in some systems is running between 10 and 20%.”

There are also less beds to go round. According to the YouTube channel NHS Doc, there were 197,000 NHS beds in 1987, but by 2015 this number had dropped to 130,000, despite an increasing – and aging – population.

Unnecessary Trips to A&E and a Surge in Winter Illnesses

The pressure on hospitals is compounded by people coming to A&E with issues that could be dealt with by their GP or by phoning the NHS 111 hotline. This winter seems especially bad for flu-type infections. NHS England stated the service “has been under sustained pressure recently because of high levels of respiratory illness, early indications of increasing flu prevalence and some reports suggesting a rise in the severity of illness among patients arriving at A&E.”

Government Underfunding of the NHS

According to NHS Doc, demand for NHS services is rising at around 5% per year while costs are increasing at 7%. Funding, however, is only increasing at around 1.2% per annum in real terms, with a funding shortfall of £20 billion predicted by 2020.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, one junior doctor said, “This is the tightest squeeze on the NHS budget in its history. We have 15,000 fewer hospital beds; we’ve got £6 billion out of social care. It’s a crisis created by this government, which must now be held to account.”  

NHS Understaffing

In 2017, data from NHS Digital showed there were 86,000 vacant posts in NHS England, a rise of 15.8% on the previous year and the highest number on record.

This partly seems to be due to the stress of working in an underfunded, overstretched service. One junior doctor told The Guardian newspaper, “On my ward, the nursing vacancies now top 30%. The trust simply can’t find anyone to fill them.”

“For doctors, it’s little better. All our rotas are littered with gaps. When I’m starting a night shift, I’m frequently handed another doctor’s on-call bleeper. Now the nurses will page me for twice as many patients.”

Conclusion: What Is Causing Britain’s NHS Winter Crisis?

The NHS winter crisis seems to be the result of an unusually high level of winter health problems exacerbating long-term issues in the Health Service, namely underfunding, understaffing, bed blocking and the public making unnecessary A&E visits.

Many feel the NHS is now under the heaviest pressure in its history. Dr Taj Hassan said, “We are seeing conditions that people have not experienced in their working lives.”

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