Warnings for coming winter as NHS capacity reduced

As a new strain of Covid-19 triggers yet another surge of hospital admissions, tying up more front line resources, emergency consultants are warning of a grim winter ahead for the NHS.

The most recent NHS England figures show almost 9,000 (8,928) hospital beds occupied by Covid patients on June 30, a sharp increase from the recent lowest level of 3,800 beds at the beginning of June.

And while the success of the vaccination programme means that a much smaller proportion of Covid patients are needing ITU treatment, this increased number of general and acute beds that are not available to treat the normal emergency or elective caseload has run alongside a significant reduction in numbers of acute beds that are occupied.

Bed availability and occupancy figures from Quarter 4 of 2021-22 show there were 3,385 fewer beds occupied than in the equivalent period just before the pandemic (2018-19). So the combination of Covid cases and reduced capacity mean that over 12,000 (almost one in eight) acute beds in England are unavailable for normal activity, and the Covid beds still require nursing cover.

This has led to a drastic drop in performance of emergency services and a continued increase in the waiting list to more than 6.5m.

With this shortage of beds coupled with chronic staff shortages affecting many trusts, and a renewed increase in Covid infections driving up sickness absence, it’s hardly surprising that NHS trusts are unable even to reach pre-pandemic levels of activity, let alone reach NHS England targets to increase beyond them by 10% this year (in the hopes of securing extra funding) in an effort to cut growing waiting lists. It now seems that these targets may have to be  abandoned.