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NHS winter pressures ‘unsustainable’ but look to improve

The NHS’s winter pressures reached another peak last week as record numbers of hospitals were forced to declare a major alert, according to new data.

NHS England figures for the week ending 15 January 2017 showed that 68 NHS acute trusts – almost half of England’s 152 total – declared operational pressures last week, 61 of them in one day at the start of the week on Monday 9 January.

Meanwhile, 52 trusts were forced to divert patients arriving by ambulance to other hospitals, almost double the 27 reported during the same week last year.

NHS Providers, which represents the vast majority of England’s hospital trusts, warned that while the NHS as a whole had “just about kept its head above water” last week, continuing to manage winter pressures will be “unsustainable” for the health service.

“These latest figures show the NHS working flat out last week to provide safe and timely care for patients in the midst of unprecedented demand,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers.

“Two things are clear,” he added. “First, we owe a huge debt of thanks to NHS frontline staff who have responded way beyond the call of duty to ensure the NHS as a whole has just about kept its head above water in the face of unprecedented demand.  Second, we cannot carry on trying to manage well known winter pressures in this way – it is unsustainable”.

The pressure looks to have been sustained at the start of the year as fifteen trusts stayed on continuous alert between 3 and 13 January, reporting an Operational Pressure Evaluation Level (OPEL) of OPEL 3 or OPEL 4 each day.

Bed occupancy rates also rose with trusts recording a level of 95.8% last week, a slight raise on the 94.8% reported between 2-8 January and nowhere near the 85% occupancy rate which is considered safe by the NHS.

While the figures look bleak, NHS Providers said that anecdotally trusts have reported easing pressures in recent days and expect this to be indicated in next week’s figures. However, the body warned that a flu outbreak or period of cold weather could still potentially “immediately reverse” the improvement.

An NHS England spokesperson said:  “Demand moderated somewhat last week, but A&E departments remain under pressure, with flu cases set to increase and norovirus still higher than last year.”

NHS England has urged the public to manage flu symptoms at home themselves rather than seeing their GP or attending A&E if they are otherwise healthy.

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