On Tuesday evening, officials at the National Health Service in England recommended that hospitals cancel non-urgent appointments and operations in January to free up space for the sickest patients. It’s estimated that this could affect 55,000 surgeries, such as hip and knee replacements. Cancer surgeries and time-critical procedures should proceed as planned, officials said.
Several of Britain’s national newspapers featured the story on their front pages.
Britons are fiercely proud of their national health service, but it is not uncommon for hospitals to face significant strain during the winter months when they don’t have many spare beds and there is greater demand. Last year, the British Red Cross called the situation a “humanitarian crisis.”
The latest recommendations extend those made in December that non-urgent operations should be canceled in the first two weeks of January.
The NHS Providers, a trade association, said in a statement that many hospitals are dealing with “unprecedented demand,” because of an increase in “flu and respiratory illness, the impact of norovirus and — in some places — primary care, including GPs working at more than full stretch.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, tweeted that hospital leaders are “creating extra temporary capacity, calling in staff to work extra shifts, delaying non urgent work. But this still means that, in some places, waiting times and care under real pressure.” He also noted that the situation is similar to that of last year. “NHS staff giving their all, once again. Current approach not sustainable long term . . . But we said that last year!” he tweeted.
Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at Kings Fund, an independent health charity, agreed that there was a “creeping familiarity” to the events. But what’s different from previous winters, he said, was the political appetite for a national response. He said this was driven in part by a desire to meet targets for emergency room waiting times and also as a precautionary measure to free up capacity in case there is an outbreak of flu virus infections like there was in Australia.
He said it was encouraging that the government was coordinating its response on a national level but that it was disappointing that they are “only looking at how to get through the next few months,” rather than addressing the underlying issues — like funding, staffing and social care issues.
“We can’t keep putting a sticking plaster on this problem,” he said.
Some health professionals also jumped on social media to discuss conditions. One doctor apologized for the “3rd world conditions of the dept due to overcrowding.”
A nurse asked when it became normal to care for patients in corridors and waiting rooms.
Another doctor said that the current pressures were a “system fail.”