Patients are dying in hospital corridors as safety is compromised by “intolerable” conditions, doctors say.
The warning has been made in a letter to the prime minister signed by 68 senior A&E doctors spelling out the danger patients are facing this winter.
It comes as reports have emerged of people being left for hours on trolleys in corridors and stuck in ambulances as A&E teams struggle.
Meanwhile, hospital bosses have warned they have run out of beds.
Last week there was a point when 133 out of 137 hospital trusts had an unsafe number of patients on their wards, NHS records show.
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The letter from doctors in England and Wales sets out some of the impact of this pressure.
- Patients are having to sleep in make-shift wards set up in side-rooms
- Trolley waits of up to 12 hours are being routinely seen as staff struggle to find free beds
- Thousands of patients are left stuck in the back of ambulances waiting for A&E staff to take them in
- Over 120 patients a day are being managed in corridors in some places, some dying prematurely
The letter has been sent on the day it has been revealed that England’s A&Es missed their four-hour waiting time target by a record margin in December – over 300,000 patients waited longer than they should.
Just 85.07% of patients were seen in four hours – well below the 95% target – and marginally worse than the previous low in January 2017.
Chris Hopson, of NHS Providers, said hospitals were unsafe and over-crowded, and the NHS was at a “watershed moment”, requiring long-term funding.
The rest of the UK is also struggling. Waits in Scotland’s major A&E units hit their worst levels at the end of December.
The Welsh government has said the health service was facing “significant pressure” and in Northern Ireland the Antrim Area Hospital has had to bring in St John Ambulance volunteers to help with a surge in demand.
‘There was no dignity – it was chaos’
Rosie Dawson, 37, is just one of the patients who has been caught up in the problems.
She was taken to Torbay General A&E on 3 January with a gynaecological problem which had left her with severe pain and bleeding.
She said it was chaos, with trolleys everywhere, staff running up and down corridors and queues of ambulances outside.
Staff could not find a private area for her to be assessed in so she ended up being examined in front of other patients.
“There was no dignity. It was degrading,” she said. “I couldn’t fault the staff, there was nothing they could do. It was chaos.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Hopson said last year was “the first time ever” in NHS history that all of its key targets for A&E, cancer and planned operations across the UK had been missed.
He said hospitals were short of 10,000-15,000 beds and it was time for the government to decide how to fund the NHS in the long term.
“We have reached a watershed moment where either we fund the NHS to the extent that is needed to meet those standards or, and this is absolutely not what we want, we abandon those standards.
“But it is a watershed moment. We are now at the point where we can not deliver the NHS constitutional standards without a long-term funding settlement.”
Mr Hopson said mild weather and low flu rates had helped hospitals “scrape by” during previous winters.
“Maybe if we had been lucky again this year we could, just about, have coped,” he added.
“But it has not turned out that way. Flu is rising, there is more respiratory illness and the cold weather is taking its toll.”
Since 2010 the budget has been rising at about 1% a year on average whereas traditionally the NHS got over 4%.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care in England acknowledged there were problems.
He said: “We know there is a great deal of pressure in A&E departments and that flu rates are going up, and we are grateful to all NHS staff for their incredible work in challenging circumstances.”
But he added that plans were in place to help, including extra money for council-run care services so people could be moved out of hospital more quickly and the single biggest expansion in doctoring training places in the history of the NHS – 25% in the coming years.
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