Doctors fighting pandemic 'with one arm tied behind their back' amid critical care capacity concerns

  • Watch: Video report by ITV Wales Correspondent, James Crichton-Smith

Critical care doctors in Wales say they are fighting the pandemic 'with one arm tied behind their back in a country that is under-provisioned for critical care services.'

The stark message comes as Wales is put into a national lockdown once again.

Dr Jack Parry-Jones, who represents the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine (FICM) in Wales made the comments when comparing other European countries with Wales.

Dr Parry-Jones said critical care capacity in Wales, which currently stands at 5.7 beds per 100,000 population, "has to be seen in the context of Europe."For example Germany has 27 beds per 100,000 of their population and we can see that their response to the current pandemic is better. It'll be better for a number of reasons but they certainly don't have one armed tied behind their back when they're trying to respond to a pandemic in a country that is under-provisioned for critical care services."Compared to the rest of the UK, Wales has fewer critical care beds per 100,000. The UK average is 7 and across Europe it averages 11.5.

Credit: PA

Wales's shortfall in critical care beds has long been known.

A report done after the winter flu season of 2010-11 found that critical care services in Wales were already 'vulnerable'. Even then, the issue was described as 'long-standing'. The report said: "The shortage of Intensive Care beds in Wales is a long standing issue. It makes critical care, and thereby all secondary hospital services, very vulnerable to increases in demand."

A later report in 2017 talked of the need to "deliver a quicker pace of change," yet since 2017 the number of intensive care beds in Wales has remained the same.

Opposition parties say that Welsh Government has therefore failed to heed the warnings on the lack of critical care capacity.

Welsh Conservatives Health spokesperson Andrew RT Davies MS said: "It's a damning indictment of failure to act." He added: "It makes me angry when I look at the scale of the gap of what's been developed in other parts of the United Kingdom."

Plaid Cymru is also critical of what it says is a lack of action to make Wales equal to other nations in terms of critical care.Plaid Cymru's Health spokesperson, Rhun Ap Iorwerth MS, said: "We've known for some time how vulnerable we are." He added: "Why hasn't there been a concerted effort to make sure that we are on the same footing as other countries, other countries in the UK, other countries across Europe? This isn't news, we have known for years that Wales has had inadequate critical care capacity. That wasn't acted upon, now we're paying the price for that."

It has also been suggested that had Wales had more critical care capacity, there wouldn't be the need for such a harsh second national lockdown. When asked whether he believed this was the case, Dr Parry-Jones said: "Yes I believe that's true. The Welsh Government doesn't really have much of a choice. They've got to try this lockdown again for a short sharp period because they don't have enough capacity in various sectors of the health service. If they had more capacity in critical care it would make it much easier to not institute such a harsh lockdown."

Dr Parry-Jones added that there needs to be a renewed and continued focus on critical care capacity so that any future pandemics don't put as much strain on services.

Responding to the concerns, the Welsh Government spokesperson said: “The level of demand during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic was much higher than we might expect to see in other busy times, like winter. NHS Wales rapidly redeployed staff and doubled the number of critical care beds in March. To prepare for this winter, health boards have doubled the number of beds with the potential to triple capacity if needed.

Since 2017 we have been increasing the number of postgraduate training places in intensive care medicine, and the Health Minister has set out a programme for improving critical care, backed by £15m funding.”