NHS England winter pressures 'new normal' all year round, report warns

Winter pressures faced by the NHS are "the new normal" for the rest of the year, according to a damning new report.

In it, experts say that pressures normally only seen on the health service during the winter months are "increasingly visible at other times of the year."

The new report by health charities the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation, found that a number of indicators which show when the NHS is struggling in colder months are increasingly becoming apparent throughout the rest of the year.

Problems which are traditionally confined to winter but are now found in summer include long "trolley waits" - where emergency medics have decided to admit a patient but they are forced to wait for hours before a bed is found - and worsening ambulance response times.

"Problems that were usually confined to the winter months are now increasingly being experienced at other times of the year," the authors wrote.

There is usually additional pressure on the NHS in the winter because it is a time where additional illnesses and the colder weather can affect the most vulnerable groups in society, including the young and elderly.

A number of key indicators of performance showed a bleak picture during the winter of 2014/15, including:

  • The four-hour A&E target has not been met nationally for over two years.

  • A big increase in the number of trolley waits - which are defined as patients having to wait between four and 12 hours after a decision has been made by an A&E doctor to admit them to the main hospital.

  • The number of patients waiting more than 12 hours after a decision was made to admit them to the hospital reached a peak of 270 in the first week of 2015, a significant increase on the same week over the previous four years.

  • An increasing number of ambulances queuing outside hospitals - the figure stood at around 60,000 each winter until 2014/15 when it increased to 96,150.

The experts said that after a difficult summer, the NHS entered the 2015/16 winter from a poor starting point which could lead to a "downward spiral" in performance.

"Every year, the winter months produce a combination of circumstances that understandably make it harder for the NHS to cope," lead author of the report, Dr Elizabeth Fisher of the Nuffield Trust, said.

Tim Gardner, senior fellow at the Health Foundation, added:

Commenting on the report, Dr Clifford Mann, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said:

Heidi Alexander, Labour's shadow health secretary, said: "Under this Tory Government, the NHS not only has a winter crisis but a spring, summer and autumn crisis too. Hospital departments have become dangerously full, patients are waiting hours in A&E, and delayed discharges have hit a record high.