England’s hospitals continue to endure “relentless” pressure on their accident and emergency services, NHS England data shows.
The latest NHS England “situation report” shows that ambulances took more than 77,000 people to A&E last week: an increase of about 5,000 on the previous week.
Bed occupancy remains stubbornly high, with more than 95% of general and acute hospital beds filled. However, staff absence has fallen, and so has the number of patients in hospital with flu.
Despite ongoing pressure, NHS providers also saw a fall in delays in handing patients from ambulances to A&Es this week: a key marker of patient flow through hospitals.
Long ambulance delays have become common in England as hospitals struggle to make room for new patients.
This winter, there has been particularly poor performance when handing over ambulances, with overcrowded emergency departments and queues of ambulances queuing outside hospitals. This in turn has led to slow response times for ambulances.
Commenting on the figures, Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of industry body NHS Providers, said in a statement: “The pressure on A&A services is relentless. Trust leaders are doing all they can to deliver high-quality, timely patient care and have made remarkable progress in reducing ambulance handover delays in the past week despite higher A&E admissions.
“But much more needs to be done to tackle the growing list of challenges facing the NHS, including soaring vacancies, unfunded pay awards and escalating strike action.”
She warned that a major upcoming strike would put even more pressure on the already strained services.
“As trust leaders prepare for the biggest NHS staff move in less than two weeks, they must contend with unsafe levels of bed occupancy as 93.8% of beds in general and emergency departments were taken every day last week,” she said.
The government, she added, needed to release a fully funded workforce plan to bring confidence to managers that they will have the resources to ensure hospitals are sustainably staffed over the coming years.
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy and industry body NHS Confederation, agrees. She said in a statement that “addressing the worsening workforce crisis” was critical to preventing similar crises in the future.
“We must continue to learn from the hard lessons this winter and the government should do everything it can to put us in a better position for next time,” she said.
The government should engage with unions to end ongoing industrial action over pay, she added. Continued strikes – which have already seen nurses and paramedics curtail their activities on several dates in December and January – are “a dead end holding the NHS back.”
With more strike dates planned in the coming weeks, union leaders have criticized the government for its unwillingness to negotiate workers’ wages.
Unison’s general secretary, Christina McAnea, said in a statement on Friday that the UK chancellor “holds the key to unlocking the damaging health pay dispute and rebuilding the NHS, but he is not even trying.”
She added: “Paying the right wages will stop the exodus of staff.”