NHS faces ‘perfect winter storm’ with tenfold rise in hospital flu cases

Latest figures also show nearly a third of patients arriving by ambulance at hospitals in England waiting at least half an hour

The NHS in England is facing a “perfect winter storm” with 10 times more people in hospital with flu than this time last year, and ambulances experiencing deadly delays when arriving at A&E with sick patients.

There were an average of 344 patients a day in hospitals in England with flu last week, more than 10 times the number at the beginning of last December.

And as many as three in 10 patients arriving at hospitals by ambulance are waiting at least 30 minutes to be handed over to A&E teams. Health chiefs say the crisis is leading to deaths.

About 22,883 delays of half an hour or longer were recorded across all hospital trusts in the week to 20 November, figures show. That represents 29% of the 79,076 arrivals by ambulance. The proportion rose as high as 23% during winter 2021/22.

The figures on flu and ambulance delays were published by NHS England on Thursday and offered the first weekly snapshot of how hospitals are performing this season.

Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents the healthcare system in England, said: “These figures really hammer home just how stretched services already are as we head into a perfect winter storm. Significantly higher numbers of people are in hospital because of flu compared to this time last year, coupled with the fact that Covid-19 has not gone away.”

The weekly NHS snapshot report also revealed that about 13% of ambulance handovers last week – equivalent to 10,020 patients – were delayed by more than an hour.

Martin Flaherty, managing director of the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives, said patients were coming to harm, being “forced to wait in the back of our ambulances, while our crews are stuck and therefore unable to respond to patients who need us out in the community”.

He added: “The life-saving safety net that NHS ambulance services provide is being severely compromised by these unnecessary delays, and patients are dying and coming to harm as a result on a daily basis.”

The figures are another sign of the pressures hospitals are facing, amid a record backlog of treatment and delays in discharging people who no longer need to be in hospital. An average of 13,179 beds a day last week were occupied by people ready to be discharged.

Prof Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, said: “The first weekly data this year shows the considerable pressure faced by staff before we enter what is likely to be the NHS’ most challenging winter ever.”

NHS Digital figures also showed that the number of written complaints about primary care, from GP and dental practices, jumped 39.4% to 120,064 in 2021-22, with communication, clinical treatment and staff attitude, behaviour or values, being the most common causes for issues over GP practices.

Louise Ansari, national director at Healthwatch England, said the figures “reflect the increasing dissatisfaction that patients are reporting to us, particularly over access to GPs and dentists”.

GPs carried out a record number of appointments in England in October, with the highest proportion of patients being seen face to face since the start of the pandemic, new figures show. More than seven in 10 people (71.3%) were seen face to face, the highest proportion since the coronavirus outbreak began though still below the pre-pandemic level of about 80%.

However, separate data from NHS Digital shows that the number of full-time equivalent qualified permanent GPs has dropped year-on-year for the fifth month in a row.


Andrew Gregory Health editor

The GuardianTramp

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