Health leaders have called on the government to “act fast” and fix “chronic” staff shortages as hospitalisations due to influenza infections jump ahead of winter.
New weekly winter figures from the NHS show that hundreds of hospital beds in England were occupied by patients with flu every day in the last week.
There were an average of 244 patients a day with flu in hospital last week, more than 10 times the number seen at the beginning of December last year (31).
Meanwhile there were an average of 29 patients with flu in intensive care, compared with just three in the same week last year.
“These figures highlight the severe strain the health secretary himself recently admitted that the healthcare system is under”
Data also showed that overall occupancy levels in NHS hospitals were running at 95% for adult general and acute beds and 80% for adult critical care beds.
These figures follow recent warnings from clinical leaders that the NHS is facing threat of a “tripledemic” of Covid-19, flu and record demand on urgent and emergency services.
Additionally, NHS England said that more than 13,000 beds a day were occupied last week by patients who no longer needed one. This was an increase of a quarter compared with the first week of December last year (10,510).
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “The first weekly data this year shows the considerable pressure faced by staff before we enter what is likely to be the NHS’s most challenging winter ever.
“The figures also show that flu is unfortunately already with us and so the concerns that we had about the threat of a ‘tripledemic’ are very real.”
Professor Powis also urged those who are eligible to book in for a flu vaccine if they had not already.
Responding to the figures, the Royal College of Nursing professional lead for public health, Helen Donovan, told Nursing Times: “The number of people in hospital with flu demonstrates just how devastating the virus can be to some of the most vulnerable.
“When the latest figures from NHS England show adult bed occupancy is already at 95%, which is well above the recommended safe level, any additional pressures will make the winter even more challenging.”
Meanwhile RCN director for England, Patricia Marquis, said: “These figures highlight the severe strain the health secretary himself recently admitted that the healthcare system is under.
Ms Marquis added that workforce shortages and low pay “have made care unsafe”.
These were just some of the reasons that the union had decided to announce strike dates for December, she said.
The strike action will take place across organisations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Thursday 15 December and Tuesday 20 December.
Ms Marquis added: “We are fighting for change, to rectify the decade of real-terms pay cuts that is pushing people out of the profession.
“It is up to politicians what happens next – they can halt this at any point by presenting a pay offer that reflects nursing’s valuable expertise.”
Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive at NHS Providers, echoed these concerns, describing how the demand on urgent and emergency care “is a symptom of system-wide pressure”.
“The winter pressures trusts warned about have now arrived in full force,” she said.
Ms Cordery added that pressures were being felt “across all parts of the health and care system”, with mental health and community providers also experiencing high levels of demand.
Trust leaders and staff “are doing all they can” to meet the demands, but were also dealing with backlogs of care caused by the coronavirus pandemic, “chronic workforce shortages and worrying levels of staff sickness”, she said.
“The government must act fast to fix an underfunded social care system and chronic staff shortages if we are going to ease pressure across the system,” Ms Cordery said.
“We welcomed the chancellor’s commitment to workforce planning and forecasting in the autumn statement, but this needs to be followed through on urgently.”
When contacted the Department of Health and Social Care directed Nursing Times to their recent announcement that there were 9,300 more nurses working in the NHS compared to September 2021.
They added that they are “committed” to publishing a comprehensive workforce strategy next year with independently verified forecasts for the number of doctors, nurses and other professionals that will be needed in five, 10 and 15 years’ time, “to grow and support the workforce”.