'National scandal': A&E hospital crisis a 'matter of life and death for many hundreds of patients'

Almost all A&E departments in the UK are struggling to cope with the influx of patients, as Martin Stew reports

The crisis in emergency departments across the country has become "a matter of life and death" for hundreds of patients with many A&E departments unsafe, a senior health official has said.Ian Higginson, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM), told ITV News there was a "crisis situation" in "most, if not all" of the emergency departments across the country.He said: "For many of us working in emergency medicine we've never seen it as bad as it is now."

"Unquestionably [it is] a matter of life and death for many hundreds of patients at the moment," he added.

"It really is a national scandal the number of patients coming to harm."

Ian Higginson, vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, tells ITV News of the "crisis" faced by the NHS

It comes after more than a dozen NHS trusts and ambulance services declared critical incidents over the festive period.

Last week, one in five ambulance patients in England waited more than an hour to be handed over to A&E teams.

NHS trusts have a target of 95% of ambulance handovers to be completed within 30 minutes, and 100% within 60 minutes.

Many A&Es are struggling to cope. Credit: ITV News

In November, 37,837 patients waited more than 12 hours in A&E for a decision to be admitted to a hospital department, according to figures from NHS England.

This is an increase of almost 355% compared with the previous November when the figure was 10,646.

Mr Higginson said the impact of the crisis means hospitals cannot offer the standard of care they want to provide patients in emergency wards.

He said: "Our hospitals are full and that means that patients are having to wait a long time in our emergency departments both to see staff and then to get admitted if they need to.

"They may be treated in corridors or in other inappropriate places by overstretched staff who are trying to look after far too many patients."

He said this crisis is directly leading to the crisis hitting ambulances because staff are struggling to accept new patients.

This leads to ambulances waiting in hospital car parks with a patient inside rather than being back out responding to emergency calls.

Images of ambulances queuing up outside hospitals have been shared across social media in recent days.

Mr Higginson said: "All along the chain, patients are having an unsatisfactory experience and it simply isn't safe at the moment - in most of our emergency departments."

When discussing how to fix the issue, he said there needs to be an "honest discussion" and said there was too much spin attempting to deflect the causes of the crisis, saying too many people are blaming Covid and flu when the real cause is "lack of investment" in both health and social care.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned that the health service is in a "fragile state" at the most difficult period of the year.

He told ITV News: "When we are hit by things like flu and Covid, it's very difficult for us to cope... the situation for many staff becomes almost unbearable."

One way of easing the pressure, is to send a clear message to the public to "use the NHS in the most responsible way", Mr Taylor said.

He added: "Secondly, as ministers return to their desks, we need to see negotiations reopening with nurses trade unions [and] ambulance drivers unions, because otherwise we'll face four days of industrial action in January on top of all these pressures.

"Beyond that, we need to explore what is necessary to make sure that when we go into next winter, we are not as fragile as we are now.

"There is more money for the health service but it's come after many years of austerity and it will take several years to build the NHS back to where it needs to be."

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Labour blamed government “mismanagement” for creating a sense of “jeopardy” around the health system.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, who described staff shortages as the “heart” of the crisis”, said there was a “sense of jeopardy” regarding the health service.

He added that the country was looking at the “consequences” of “more than 12 years of Conservative mismanagement” as he pointed to lengthy waiting lists and “enormous” staff shortages.

“It’s also the situation we see now, which I think is unprecedented in the NHS, which is people no longer feel confident that emergency medicine will be there for them when they need it,” he said.

“Indeed, the NHS seems to be actively deterring people from going to accident and emergency departments unless it’s life threatening, because they are overwhelmed.

“And I think that’s the sense of jeopardy, which is frightening so many people across the country.”

Shadow Health and Social Care secretary Wes Streeting. Credit: PA

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said that NHS staff do an “incredible” job.

“NHS staff do an incredible job and we recognise the pressures the NHS is facing following the impact of the pandemic,” they said.

“That’s why we’ve backed the NHS and social care with up to £14.1 billion additional funding over the next two years and this winter we have provided an extra £500 million to speed up hospital discharge and free up beds.

"We also awarded a 9.3% pay rise to the lowest earners in the NHS last year.

“The health secretary and ministers have met with unions several times and have been clear their door remains open to further discuss how we can work together to improve the working lives of NHS staff.”