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NHS in England facing ‘storm of pressure’ as flu and Covid cases surge

NHS in England facing ‘storm of pressure’ as flu and Covid cases surge

Average of 3,631 patients in hospital with Covid during Christmas week, data shows, a rise of 57% in a month

A surge in the number of flu and Covid admissions to hospitals in England is adding to a “storm of pressure” facing the health service, NHS leaders have said.

Figures released on Friday showed that in Christmas week, there were on average 3,631 patients with Covid in hospital, up 57% from the same week in November.

Cases of norovirus were up 61% from the same period last year, while serious flu cases also continued to spiral, with an average of 942 patients with flu in hospital each day in the week to 24 December, including 48 in critical care.

The figure is almost six times higher than in November and double the total a fortnight ago , albeit below the numbers for the equivalent week in 2022 when the UK experienced the worst flu season for a decade.

The winter viruses are having a knock-on effect on staffing, NHS England data shows, with an average of 2,597 employees off with Covid alone each day last week, up 51% from November.

Meanwhile, 10,000 patients had to spend Christmas in hospital, despite being well enough to go home. Of the 18,669 patients who were fit to leave hospital on Christmas Eve, only 8,667 were discharged.

In January, the prime minister announced a plan to avoid another NHS winter crisis. He pledged to create another 5,000 beds in English hospitals before winter and reduce bed occupancy rates. But Friday’s figures show that as of 24 December there were only 3,613 extra beds, while bed occupancy rates remain stubbornly high at 91.4%, although this is lower than previous weeks.

A six-day strike by junior doctors will begin next week over pay, with thousands more appointments and operations expected to be cancelled. During last week’s three-day strike 86,329 appointments and operations were rescheduled.

Prof Stephen Powis, the NHS England medical director, said the impact of next week’s strike would probably be “much more severe”, at a time of high demand and higher levels of virus admissions.

“These figures demonstrate the storm of pressure the NHS is facing, however, with huge rises in flu patients over the last few weeks and many more norovirus cases than we saw last winter, as well as the ongoing impact of Covid – all on top of the added pressure of industrial action.”

The chief executive of NHS Providers, Julian Hartley, said the “worrying” winter virus figures demonstrated the “scale of the challenge” facing trusts and staff, and called for more pay talks. “We urge the government and unions to think afresh, and find a way to resolve the damaging and demoralising industrial dispute which has caused so much disruption for patients. There is still time to head off the longest strike in the history of the NHS.”

Opposition parties accused the government of not prioritising the NHS. The Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Daisy Cooper, said: “Hospitals have been underfunded for years under this Conservative government, leaving both patients and hardworking NHS staff struggling. The NHS and the number of beds available for people in need should be a key priority for the government, yet these figures suggest that is far from the case.”

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said the “misery” caused by the delayed discharges over Christmas was “entirely avoidable” and promised more “care in the community”.

“Thirteen years of Conservative cuts to social care and district nurses left 10,000 patients in hospital for Christmas Day who didn’t need to be there,” he said. “The next Labour government … will introduce a fair pay agreement for care workers to tackle staff shortages and trial new neighbourhood health centres, so fewer patients need to go to hospital in the first place.”

The British Medical Association said it was open to more pay talks. Dr Robert Laurenson and Dr Vivek Trivedi, BMA junior doctors committee co-chairs, said the government could avoid “unnecessary disruption” to patients if it presented a credible offer, “especially if there was, as suggested by the secretary of state, another offer for them to make”.

“It didn’t need to be this way, and next week’s action can be avoided. The health secretary says she wants to ‘get this done’ and appeals to us to return to negotiations, yet we never walked away … We will talk at any time, right up to the 11th hour, and if talks result in a credible offer we can put to members, then further strikes can be averted.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are making better progress than last winter in cutting ambulance response times, increasing bed capacity and the number of NHS 111 calls being answered.

“There were also more hospital beds made available than this time last year and 894 of those beds were occupied by flu patients compared to 3,479 for the same week last year.

“NHS managers, medical directors and clinicians across England have had to divert their attention from winter preparations to focus on dealing with the impact of industrial action and we urge unions to call off strikes next week so we can find a fair and reasonable solution, so we can all get back to focusing on patients and their care.”

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