Winter could push A&E departments to breaking point, warn NHS leaders

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A&E departments face being strained to breaking point this winter, NHS leaders have warned.

The emergency care system has come under intense pressure, partly due to a rise in the number of people attending A&E with more than one million more people attending emergency departments compared to three years ago.

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said David Cameron needed to “get a grip” on the real issues behind the problem, accusing the Prime Minister of leaving emergency departments “on the brink of a serious crisis”.

His comments came as a survey of senior health service leaders carried out by the NHS Confederation said that misleading and ill-informed debate about the reasons behind A&E pressures is preventing the health service from addressing the actual causes.

Meanwhile a separate poll of the public found two thirds of voters believe there is a crisis and patients are being put at risk.

The survey, by Survation, found 65 per cent blamed Government cuts for any staff shortages and poor levels of care – with 75 per cent saying doctors and nurses were doing their best while being overworked.

But 65 per cent said consultants should be forced to work weekends and nights to ease the crisis, with 43 per cent backing pay cuts for any who refuse.

And the results from a third survey found that nine out of 10 nurses working in acute and emergency care believe current pressures on A&E services are putting patients in danger.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said a poll of its members found that 89 per cent of nursing staff thought the people they were meant to be caring for were being put at risk, while 85 per cent said patient safety is being compromised by the strain on the departments.

More than three-quarters (79 per cent) cited increased attendances at A&E as the reason for increased pressure, while 74 per cent blamed inappropriate attendances at A&E where patients could have been treated by primary care services or by calling NHS 111.

The NHS Confederation survey found that the majority of those questioned believe that the strain on the service is down to the rising number of frail older people with multiple long term problems followed by the difficulty in discharging or transferring patients.

The new 111 phone service has come under pressure but the poll found that 79 per cent of those asked said they did not think it a big cause of the strain on A&E departments.