I’VE seen the NHS winter beds crisis with my own eyes and it is not a pretty sight.
It is sick people on trolleys in corridors, waiting for hours until they can be made comfortable between clean sheets.
It is elderly, confused people with their possessions in carrier bags, in pain, and frightened.
It is hard-working, dedicated people – nurses, doctors, ambulance crews and ward staff – trying to do their jobs against insurmountable odds. And it is a government, which sadly, seems to be in collective denial about what is really going on.
My Dad was admitted to Barnsley District General hospital three weeks ago on the instructions of his GP. The decision was taken in the early afternoon. However it was 9pm by the time he actually made it to the hospital, such is the demand on the ambulance service.
Why didn’t I take him myself, you might ask. His doctor cautioned against it. With a suspected severe chest infection, she didn’t want a 72-year-old sitting in A&E for hours on end. And being taken in by the ambulance means you get priority, or so the theory goes.
In the end, Mum accompanied him in the ambulance, and I followed behind so I could take her home. When we finally got to the hospital I couldn’t believe my eyes. On the admissions ward, there were four other elderly people waiting too, either laid on trolleys or sat up in wheelchairs.
Each one of them had a retinue of paramedics, pushing them from corridor to waiting room like a grotesque version of the progression of a medieval king. At the desk, a cheerful but very harassed ward sister was attempting to find a bed for each of these arrivals, at the same time fielding calls from A&E. There were eight people waiting there for a bed too, she told us, but everybody here with the ambulance crews had to take priority.
You learn a lot in a hospital at night. I’m not sure if this is official or not, but one of the rules I picked up was that patients arriving by ambulance are found a bed first.
The reason for this policy became clear. The ambulance crews can’t leave their charges until they have been handed over to the care of a ward. And until a bed is found, this can’t happen.
Meanwhile, the men and women in green uniforms have to wait. And wait. And someone could be having a heart attack somewhere, or someone could have gone into premature labour in the street, and the professionals who could save their lives are stuck drinking tea in a hospital corridor.
We know all about the huge increase in A&E waiting times. According to official figures, 31,582 patients in England had to wait between four and 12 hours in October compared to 6,932 for the same month in 2010. The Prime Minister has been hauled over the coals for it, and rightly so.
What we are seeing here is the painful result of several factors: the abolition of the four-hour “target” for casualty patients to be seen, increased pressure on A&E departments due to inadequate GP services, the re-organisation of NHS funding and increased bureaucracy.
We know too about the cuts to hospital beds: in England, at least 13,000 have been lost in the past five years. This figure should not be taken at face value. What it translates into is perfectly serviceable wards which have been mothballed or closed, with beds which are no longer available for people to stay in and be treated. Until you have heard a sister trying to talk a hospital beds manager into opening up a decommissioned ward, you won’t fully comprehend the frustration of this.
What happened to Dad is the side of the NHS beds crisis we don’t hear about. People who are sick enough to be admitted to hospital by their own doctor, but who can’t have a bed on a ward when they get there. And then, of course, there are the ambulance crews marooned with them. This causes a knock-on effect, putting increased pressure on the ambulance service and possibly putting lives in danger. These heroes can’t answer an emergency call when they are stood there with their hands tied, waiting to hand over their patient.
Do you think that the Prime Minister and his Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, really comprehend the seriousness and complexity of this 24/7 challenge? I know that they do not have bottomless funds nor a magic wand which could suddenly transform things. The NHS is creaking under pressure and has been for decades. However one thing is very clear. There are simply not enough beds in our hospitals for the people who need them.
These are not malingerers or sob-story cases, but genuinely sick people who need proper medical care. People like my dad, individuals with families who are worried and need to know that their loved ones are being looked after. I cannot fault the care my Dad has been shown since he was admitted to hospital that night. I can though fault the system.