NHS hospital beds have been cut by more than half in the past 30 years – leaving the health service ‘overwhelmed’ and hospitals across the country at breaking point.
Those are the findings of a study by the King’s Fund which reveals that the number of hospital beds has plummeted from 299,000 to 142,000, with the NHS now having fewer acute hospital beds per person than vitually any other comparable health system.
The study also reveals the crisis could deepen – revealing that STPs (sustainability and transformation partnerships) around England propose to cut beds at an even faster rate in the coming years.
Doctors leaders said politicians need to ‘take their heads out of the sand’ on the issue and health leaders have urged local managers and national officials not to cut any more beds without ensuring other services are in place – warning that, actually, more would be needed to cope with the demands of an ageing population and a tough winter ahead.
BMA council chair Chaand Nagpaul said the report highlights the scale of widespread cuts to hospital beds – just months after a BMA report showed the numbers had fallen by a fifth in the last 10 years.
He said: ‘The UK already has the second lowest number of hospital beds per head to comparable
European nations, a key factor in explaining the extreme pressure on the NHS. With many cuts coming from so-called “transformation plans”, serious questions need to be asked about whether these plans are realistic and evidence-based given it defies logic to cut bed numbers when we already don’t have enough.
‘High bed occupancy routinely above the recommended limit of 85 per cent is compromising patient safety and is a symptom of wider pressure and demand on an overstretched and underfunded system.
‘It causes further delays in admissions, operations being cancelled and patients being unfairly and sometimes repeatedly let down.’
He added: ‘Staff across the NHS faced the worst winter on record last year and we don’t want to see a repeat of that again this year. In the short term we need to see bed plans that are workable and focused on the quality of care and patient experiences, rather than financial targets.
‘But in the long term we need politicians to take their heads of out the sand and provide a sustainable solution to the funding and capacity challenges that are overwhelming the health service.’
It comes as the NHS prepares for a winter of ‘real pressures’ – as forecasted by NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens (pictured below).
The King’s Fund report shows that in 2016/17 overnight occupancy in acute hospitals averaged more than 90 per cent and regularly exceeded 95 per cent during the winter – well above the level widely thought to be safe.
King’s Fund senior policy adviser Helen McKenna said: ‘With many hospitals already stretched to breaking point, reductions on the scale we know have been proposed in some areas are neither desirable not achievable.’
The news has caused concern among health leaders. NHS Confederation chief executive Niall Dickson said sometimes cutting beds was the ‘right thing to do’ but that it is ‘possible to go too far’.
He said: ‘Bed occupancy in the NHS in England is too high and in some places is not safe. As the report points out last winter we saw occupancy rates of [more than] 95 per cent, well above safe levels.
‘So beds should not be cut unless there are alternative services in place, and it is possible we may need some more beds in some places to deal with a growing and ageing population.’
At the BMA annual representative meeting in June, former BMA council chair Mark Porter railed against the beds crisis in the NHS.
He said: ‘This isn’t a measure of efficiency, as it might be at the Holiday Inn. It’s a measure of how hospitals are choked as doctors try to move patients through their treatment pathway to the care they need.’
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