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Hospitals are already 99 per cent full as the NHS prepares itself for winter - far over the 85 per cent limit experts recommend to protect patient safety.
Hospital trust chief executives have revealed that they are running close to 100 per cent bed occupancy even before the bad weather has arrived.
NHS bosses also voiced fears that patients could be harmed and staff left unable to cope with the winter surge in demand for care because their hospitals could run out of beds.
The combination of bed shortages and what the NHS calls Dtocs is a real concern owing to its potential impact on the quality of care.
Health experts agree that if more than 85 per cent of beds are occupied there is a greater risk of patients acquiring infections, ending up on wards not suitable for their illness and receiving inadequate care.
The NHS recently admitted that a £1 billion drive to free up 2,000 to 3,000 hospital beds in England by this autumn had failed. The initiative has significantly reduced delayed transfers of care in only a few areas.
The chief executive of one trust said: “We’re lucky to get below 99 per cent bed occupancy rates.We plan for winter all year round, but there’s an underlying lack of beds and resources. There is a daily battle [over where to care for patients who need to be admitted] due to the lack of beds.
“In terms of extreme pressure, we do worry. We worry about getting people into beds quickly enough.”
Another trust chief executive said: “We’re at 98 per cent capacity and 11 per cent of our beds are occupied by delayed transfer of care patients [who are medically fit to be discharged but cannot leave as social care support is not available]. Every day we have 80 to 90 patients in beds who should be somewhere else.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “It is worrying to hear of occupancy rates in some places moving close to 100 per cent before winter has started.
“The health service may be sorely tested in the coming months as it is already at or close to full stretch.”
Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said: “These figures are deeply worrying and show an NHS which is now struggling to find free beds year round. The UK already has fewer beds than equivalent European nations and further cuts could exacerbate pressures, which will adversely impact patients.
“Bed occupancy remains higher than recommended safety levels of 85 per cent, and this is added to by lack of capacity in community services and social care. High levels of bed occupancy can increase the risk of cross infection between patients, and will make it difficult for many hospitals to provide beds to ill patients who desperately need to be admitted.”
A spokesman for NHS Improvement said: “The NHS is under great pressure, bed occupancy is very high in some areas and its staff are owed a huge thank you for working so hard for patients in these circumstances.
“Planning for this winter has been more effective and more extensive than ever before. We would always encourage the public to consider alternatives to going to hospital wherever possible, including their local GP or pharmacist.”