Monday, December 15, 2008

Gross incompetence: NHS hospitals forced to close wards as winter bug spreads

They can't even handle a predictable flu outbreak

Hospitals are facing a winter crisis as a sharp rise in cases of flu and other viruses forces some to close wards to new patients. Several hospitals are already struggling to cope with a sudden rise in admissions and the spread of a virulent winter vomiting bug. Figures from NHS Direct's telephone help line show that the number of calls about colds, flu, coughs and fever has trebled in the past three months.

The figure tends to rise as winter draws in, but in the same period last year the increase was only two-fold, not three-fold. NHS Direct received 10,512 calls between September and December this year, compared to 3,435 calls for the previous three months, while more than 25,000 people have visited NHS Direct's flu symptom checker website.

The vomiting bug norovirus - the most common gastrointestinal illness in the UK, affecting up to a million people every year - is causing particular problems, with NHS chiefs forced to warn sufferers to stay away from doctors' surgeries and hospitals for fear of spreading it further. Affected hospitals include Addenbrooke's in Cambridge, Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, Worcestershire Royal Hospital and York Hospital. Several trusts said the knock-on effect was making it difficult to meet the Government's target of admitting, or dealing with, 98 per cent of emergency patients within four hours.

One of London's three major trauma centres, St George's in Tooting, was issued a 'black alert' and closed its doors to emergencies for a number of hours on Monday after experiencing a 14 per cent surge in demand compared to the same period last year. Staff at St George's reported that up to 20 patients requiring urgent admission had to be kept on beds in A&E as wards were full. Some were diverted to neighbouring hospitals, including Mayday in Croydon, Kingston Hospital and St Helier in Sutton, all of which reported pressure on their own capacity.

The Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital closed its doors to all visitors last week after 12 of its 49 wards were infected, forcing it to postpone about 60 non-urgent operations. It faced extra pressure from emergency admissions caused by falls on ice, with nearly 100 people going into the emergency department with ice-related injuries on Monday alone.

In Carlisle, two elderly care wards at the Cumberland Infirmary were closed last week in a bid to isolate the norovirus bug. Nearby Wigton cottage hospital was closed to all admissions and non-emergency transfers for the second time in a fortnight.

Two wards at East Surrey Hospital closed, while five at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn were shut or under observation.

At the University Hospital of North Staffordshire, six wards were closed, reducing the number of beds available to patients by 130. Sarah Byrom, the chief nurse, said: "While norovirus is common for this time of year, we have seen a big increase in the number of people coming into the hospital with symptoms."

Affected wards can usually be reopened after a few days, following routine disinfecting. But campaigners claim that cuts in bed capacity have left hospitals ill-equipped to cope with seasonal flu, accidents and respiratory complaints at the same time as having to close wards to cope with norovirus. Geoff Martin, head of campaigns at Health Emergency, called the situation at St George's "deeply worrying" and said: "We are calling on the Government to make cash available to open additional beds and draft in extra staff to cope with the growing crisis on the wards."

Norman Lamb MP, Liberal Democrat spokesman for health, said too many hospitals where operating at 90 to 95 per cent capacity, despite experts recommending no higher than 85 per cent in order to allow hospitals to cope with a sudden influx of patients or an emergency. He said: "There is a minority of hospitals around the country already operating under impossible pressure and when you add to that winter viruses such as norovirus you get a crisis. It has an impossible impact on staff, putting them under enormous strain, and it clearly affects patient care."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "Winter crises used to bedevil the NHS. Thanks to record investment and better organisation we have not had a major winter crisis for several years. However, we constantly update our contingency plans in the light of events." [Translation: Reality does not exist]


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