NHS leaders in several parts of England have temporarily scaled back services except for patients whose life is in danger as the number of those 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 it had declared a critical incident “due to extreme pressures across our services”.
The latest evidence of strains on health services has threatened to overshadow ministers’ attempts to trumpet the impact of a new health and social care levy, which came into force on Wednesday and 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,” the ambulance service said.
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 in northern England, told patients in a statement late on Tuesday only 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 also declared a critical incident on Wednesday.
On a visit to a hospital in Hertfordshire on Wednesday, Boris Johnson, prime minister, 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, warnings from health workers on the frontline demonstrate how the latest surge, driven by the Omicron BA.2 sub-variant, has piled pressure on the health service, as the government pressed ahead with ending free mass testing and scrapping the remaining coronavirus restrictions.
As of April 6, 16,587 hospital beds across England were occupied by Covid patients, after rising 6 per cent in the past week. The figure is close to the high point of about 17,100 Covid patients reached in January caused by the surge of the original Omicron variant.
However, nearly three-fifths of patients are being treated primarily for another medical issue.
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 said.
Ambulance services were doing everything they could to manage in these “extremely difficult circumstances” said Cordery, but added that “extra pressures” were leading to growing delays at emergency departments.
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”.
With one in thirteen people now Covid positive, and cases still rising in older people, “as we learn to ‘live with Covid’ there will be a direct knock-on effect on the NHS’s ability to tackle waiting lists”, she added.
The department for health and social care and NHS England have been approached for comment.