NHS leaders in several parts of England have temporarily scaled back services except for patients whose lives are in danger, as the number of people in hospital with coronavirus nears that of the first Omicron peak.
The South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS), which operates across six counties surrounding London, announced early on Wednesday that it had declared a critical incident “due to extreme pressures across our services”.
The latest evidence of the strain on health services threatens to overshadow ministers’ attempts to trumpet the government’s new health and social care levy, which is intended to pump billions of pounds into the NHS in the next three years.
“If your situation is not a life-threatening or serious emergency then we will discuss your needs and provide advice. If your call does not require an emergency ambulance response then you could be asked to make your own way to hospital,” SCAS said.
As of April 6, 16,587 hospital beds across England were occupied by Covid-19 patients, after rising 6 per cent in the past week. The figure is close to the high point of about 17,100 Covid-19 patients reached in January, caused by a surge of the original Omicron variant.
However, nearly three-fifths of patients are being treated primarily for another medical issue.
Mark Ainsworth, SCAS director of operations, said declaring a critical incident meant it could focus its resources on the neediest patients and “communicates the pressures we are under to our patients and health system partners who can provide support”.
West Yorkshire Association of Acute Trusts, which represents six hospital trusts, told patients to attend accident and emergency departments when facing “genuine, life-threatening situations”, warning of waits of more than 12 hours. Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth declared a critical incident on Wednesday.
During a visit to a hospital in Hertfordshire on Wednesday, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said: “Everybody across the country knows somebody who’s waiting for a cancer treatment or some sort of procedure that is crucial for their health. We’ve got to give our doctors and our nurses the wherewithal, the funding, to deal with that.”
However, health workers warned that the latest surge, driven by the Omicron BA.2 sub-variant, had piled new pressure on services, as the government pressed ahead with scrapping the remaining coronavirus restrictions.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said trusts across England were still under “enormous strain”.
“A very high number of hospital beds are occupied and, combined with staff absences and severe workforce shortages, this means that trusts can’t recover care backlogs as quickly as they want to,” she added.
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said healthcare leaders “would urge the government to have a realistic conversation with the public about the current situation in the health service”.
The NHS said staff “remain under significant pressure on many fronts as they deal with high numbers of ambulance call outs, increasing numbers of people in hospital with Covid-19, while the latest weekly figures also show a spike in the number of staff off sick due to the virus”.
“NHS teams across the country are working hard to deliver as much routine care as possible, as well as rolling out the spring booster programme,” it added.