Patients are at risk in overcrowded hospitals as the NHS struggles to cope with the deluge of patients seen in recent weeks, a senior doctor has said.
Prof Suzanne Mason, from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, described it as a “huge tragedy”.
Reports have emerged of patients facing long waits for treatment and being stuck on trolleys in corridors and of ambulances left queuing outside A&E.
NHS bosses have responded by cancelling non-urgent care en masse.
Tens of thousands of operations, treatments and appointments have been put off for the rest of January as hospitals have tried to ease some of the pressure.
But Prof Mason said the move was “too little too late” as hospitals simply had no beds free and these treatments would have had to be cancelled anyway.
She added: “Patient safety is being compromised – there’s no doubt about that. When patients are in crowded emergency departments and staff cannot actually move between patients and provide the basic level of care that’s required, then safety is compromised.
“Patients who spend many hours on a trolley – and these are often elderly patients – they are the sickest patients in our department.
“They are much more likely to have a poorer outcome and even die as a result of their experience in the emergency department. And that is a huge tragedy for us in our specialty and that’s why we are so desperate to see things improve.”
NHS England’s director for acute care, Prof Keith Willett, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he had not seen such pressures in the NHS since the 1990s.
But he denied the service was in crisis.
“Well a crisis is when you haven’t got in place mitigations and you haven’t got a plan to deal with it,” he said.
“We’ve gone into this winter in a way we’ve never prepared before.
“We went into the winter before Christmas having cancelled fewer elective operations than previously, our discharges were at a lower level than previously so we were better prepared.”
NHS England’s National Emergency Pressures Panel, which met on Tuesday, said it had extended the deadline for deferral of all non-urgent inpatient elective care – such as hip or knee replacements – to 31 January, to free up capacity for the sickest of patients.
NHS England also gave hospitals the green light to put patients in mixed sex wards.
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