Hospitals across the UK are under huge pressure at the moment.
There has been an unprecedented increase in the number of people attending A&E and this has forced Grantham Hospital and United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust to declare a level 4 alert. I will be meeting with senior managers and clinical staff at Grantham Hospital in the next few weeks to find out more about the particular challenges they face.
But it is important to recognise that all parts of the country are being affected, and that the number of people being forced to wait more than four hours to be seen by a doctor is even greater in Wales and Scotland than in England.
There are only three questions that matter at this point. Why is this happening? What can be done to bring the situation under control? And how do we stop it from happening again?
The NHS always comes under pressure in January and February because of the incidence of winter flu and other ailments. A&E departments bear the brunt of this in early January because most doctors’ surgeries are closed over New Year. But what has happened in the last few days is abnormal and seems to be a result of the coming together of a few other things: too many otherwise healthy people are going to A&E with coughs, colds and standard flu symptoms. Some of them are being advised to do so by the non-emergency 111 phone line; others are doing so of their own accord.
Also, too many hospital beds are occupied by frail, elderly people waiting for places to be found for them in care homes. This means that a backlog of patients waiting to be admitted builds up in A&E, and this in turn makes it impossible for doctors to see to new arrivals in reasonable time.
The NHS budget has gone up from £98 billion in 2009/10 to £110 billion in 2014/15. In his Autumn Statement the Chancellor announced an extra £2 billion a year in funding for frontline services and before Christmas the Health Secretary allocated an additional £700 million to help hospitals cope with winter pressures.
So the NHS is facing this situation with more doctors, more nurses and more money than it has ever had in its history. But with the massive increase in the number of people going to A&E, any health system in the world would struggle to cope and hospital bosses understandably feel that they are running just to keep still.
As individuals, as well as taxpayers, we need to use our health service responsibly and not bring relatively minor complaints to A&E. Meanwhile, the NHS needs to ensure that staff manning the 111 phone line are given sufficient training to recognise what conditions are serious so they only advise people to go to A&E if they really need to. Councils like Lincolnshire County Council need to redouble their efforts to ensure that there arrangements for the continuing care of people leaving hospital are put in place promptly so that they can free up hospital beds for new patients.
We all cherish the NHS and we all rely on it in times of trouble. This means that we all have a responsibility to help it deal with the temporary but intense pressures it is facing at this time.