The number of patients in hospital with flu and norovirus has surged to a new winter high as doctors and health leaders warn seasonal illnesses are piling pressure on the NHS.
Data also shows an average of 688 patients were in hospital each day last week with norovirus – up 80 per cent from December and 75 per cent higher than this time last year.
It comes as top emergency care doctors warn the NHS remains in a “permacrisis” after the government’s A&E plan – launched last year – has had “little or no” positive impact on hospitals.
Responding to the figures, Adam Brimelow, the director of communications at NHS Providers, said: “There’s been no respite for the NHS this week with a major spike in winter bugs, including norovirus, flu and Covid-19, piling the pressure on the health service.”
He said pressures are compounded by “worrying” levels of staff sickness, with 49,212 out of work each day last week – 727 more than the same week last year. The “double whammy” of winter pressures and the cost of living crisis had worsened the situation for the NHS, he added.
Meanwhile, there has been an increase in ambulance callouts and handover delays.
The latest NHS performance figures show that 34 per cent of hospital patients in England arriving by ambulance in the week to January 28 had to wait more than half an hour to be handed over to A&E teams.
This is up from 32 per cent in the previous week and the joint highest so far this winter, as well as being nearly double the level at this point last year.
Some 15 per cent of patients had to wait more than an hour to be handed over last week, up from 14 per cent the previous week – again, the joint highest level this winter.
Doctors warned actions which would discourage staff from working during the busy period would mean a risk to patient safety.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine said this week that, 12 months on from the NHS urgent and emergency care plan, A&Es are still “unsafe”. Figures show tens of thousands are still waiting more than 12 hours to be seen after arrival.
Several hospitals in the last two weeks have announced critical incidents over the increased winter pressures.
Earlier this week, figures from the Office for National Statistics showed in the last two weeks one in five adults could not keep comfortably warm a home and one in 25 reported their household had run out of food and could not afford to buy more.
Professor Julian Redhead, NHS England’s national clinical director for urgent and emergency care, said: “The NHS is still in the thick of a challenging winter with intensifying seasonal virus pressures as hospitals dealt with the highest number of patients with norovirus or flu so far this winter.
“Last week was evidence of why the NHS needed to grow its core bed numbers – with occupancy at its highest level this winter, fuelled by rising numbers of flu and norovirus admissions, and more than 13,000 patients remaining in hospital each day who are fit to be discharged because of ongoing capacity issues in social and community care– and NHS staff have worked tirelessly to boost capacity and execute key steps of the urgent and emergency care recovery plan.”