Patients are being turned away from full hospitals for the first time, warns NHS boss

Patients are being turned away from hospital A&E departments for the first time because demand is too high, an NHS boss has warned.

Nick Hulme, the chief executive of Colchester and Ipswich hospitals, said they were facing the busiest period they had ever seen and were struggling to cope with the number of patients.

Mr Hulme, who has worked in the NHS for 42 years, warned that the emergency departments were full, but patients were still arriving.

He said it was the first time they had had to turn some patients away from the hospital to find treatment elsewhere.

"In the past we've been able to accommodate those patients," said Mr Hulme. "They've had to wait a long time but we've been able to see them.

"With the current situation we simply can't do that because that takes away our specialist staff from doing the work they need to do with the patients who have those acute needs.

"So for the first time we are saying to patients 'Sorry we can't provide those services to you today'.

"We do a full assessment so we're not turning people away without assessing their needs, but if their needs are not urgent, if they're not going to become immediately unwell, then we will ask them to seek alternative treatment."

  • Nick Hulme, chief executive of East Sussex and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, said their A&E departments are full

Meanwhile, the medical director at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital said it was facing a "perfect storm of infections".

Over recent days the hospital has seen more than 30 ambulances queueing outside its emergency department.

Prof Erika Denton said they were having to prioritise the sickest patients, while many others were left waiting.

"Sometimes we have queues of ambulances waiting to offload which is really difficult for people who are left in an ambulance waiting to come into the emergency department," said Prof Denton.

"Many times that queue is because we're taking the sickest in first. So if you are really unwell and you need resuscitating you will be brought straight into the hospital."

The problem has been made worse because there are more than 200 patients in the hospital who are medically well enough to be discharged - equivalent to one in five patients - but are left blocking beds because of a lack of social care.

Staff are struggling to deal with the rise in three respiratory viruses including Covid, flu and norovirus.

Prof Denton, who has worked in the NHS for 40 years, said: "It's probably the busiest to be honest that I've ever known it.

"Certainly in my four-and-a-half years as medical director it's the busiest, but I think back through my career as a doctor, I think the last time I experienced these kind of pressures were with flu back in the 1990s. It has been extraordinarily hard for us.

"We've got a perfect storm of infections. We've got Covid, we've also got a lot of patients with flu in the hospital who are really unwell, we've had norovirus outbreaks.

"And for our smaller children we've got respiratory syncytial virus and a whole raft of nasty coughs and colds which have not only meant lots of people coming into the hospital very ill, but our staff are also affected by sickness."

Ambulances waiting to offload patients at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The hospital currently has more than 140 so-called escalation beds in use, which means patients are being squeezed into areas where they would not usually be accommodated.

"Sadly that means that often we have seven patients in six-bedded bays," said Prof Denton. "That's very tight, it's really difficult.

"It's harder to maintain dignity and privacy and we know that, but we are doing our level best to look after absolutely everybody as well as we possibly can. And that does sadly mean that we have people in slightly more cramped conditions than we would like."

Downing Street said the government had been "up front" with the public about the pressure the NHS would face this winter.

The prime minister's official spokesman acknowledged that the current pressure on the health service was an "unprecedented challenge".

He added: "I think we have been up front with the public long in advance of this winter that because of the pandemic and the pressures it's placed in the backlog of cases that this would be an extremely challenging winter, and that is what we are seeing."

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