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NHS crisis: A&E warning as winter pressure cripples hospitals

Hospitals across the Black Country and Staffordshire have warned of long waits at A&E as pressure increases on the NHS.

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Clockwise from top left: Walsall Manor, Sandwell General, County Hospital, New Cross and Russells Hall

Health bosses have warned patients they should only attend the emergency department if their conditions are ‘serious or life-threatening’ as a care crisis engulfs the NHS.

Meanwhile in an unprecedented move, NHS England has told hospitals across the country to delay pre-planned operations and routine outpatient appointments until the end of the month due to severe winter pressures.

NHS England said that across the country up to 55,000 operations could be delayed, although cancer operations and time-critical procedures should go ahead as planned.

Officials said it was hoped that the measures will free up senior hospital doctors to triage more patients in A&E, be available for phone advice for GPs and ensure that patients in hospitals are reviewed twice each day to help timely discharges.

We spoke to health bosses across the region:

Russells Hall, Dudley

Ambulance outside Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley

The head of Dudley’s NHS Trust says people should expect a ‘very long wait’ at Russells Hall Hospital, with priority given to the most needy.

A trust spokesman said: “Our Accident and Emergency Department is extremely busy and so if patients’ conditions aren’t serious or life-threatening, they should use another NHS service.

“We ask that patients only come to A&E if they need this level of service and consider instead NHS 111, the ‘Ask NHS’ app, local pharmacists or their GPs rather than coming to the Emergency Department at Russells Hall Hospital.”

Trust chief executive Diane Wake added: “If people do come to hospital with minor conditions, they could have a very long wait as our most poorly patients will be seen and treated first.”

The trust came under increasing strain in the run up to Christmas, with official statistics showing there were no critical care beds free at Russells Hall Hospital for five of the seven days from December 18.

And figures released in October showed that one in five A&E patients were waiting more than four hours to be seen – way short of the NHS target of 95 per cent.

Dudley North’s Labour MP Ian Austin today called for greater funding for the NHS.

He said: “Doctors, nurses and other NHS staff are battling to care for patients, but they need a government that will support them properly and the truth is that the Government has failed to deliver the funding the NHS needs.”

New Cross Hospital, Wolverhampton

New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton

Gwen Nuttall, chief operating officer at The Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, said: “Our hospitals, along with others regionally and nationally, have been incredibly busy over the Christmas and New Year period.

“When we experience such demand, we always ensure that we prioritise the most seriously ill and injured patients.

“I would ask people to please think carefully about alternative local health care services. Many conditions can be seen much more quickly using alternative services and A&E should only be used for the most serious injuries and illnesses.”

Patients who require on-the-spot treatment have been asked to use services including the walk-in centre at the Phoenix Health Centre, the Minor Injury Unit (MIU) at Cannock Chase Hospital and the Urgent Care Centre at New Cross.

They are also being directed to pharmacists or told to call the non-emergency NHS 111 line.

This week it was revealed that more than 100 patients waited longer than half-an-hour in ambulances outside New Cross Hospital in November, with one child forced to wait 12 hours to be admitted to A&E.

Wolverhampton MP Emma Reynolds said it was ‘appalling’ that patients and staff were being let down by Government underfunding of the NHS.

Sandwell General and City hospitals

Sandwell General is run by Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust

In a bid to ease the strain on staff, patients are being sent to GPs directly from Sandwell Hospital’s A&E throughout the winter period.

Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs Sandwell General and City hospitals, came under increasing strain in the run up to Christmas, with more than 120 patients a day waiting in excess of four hours in the hospitals' A&E departments.

Councillor Bob Lloyd, a member of Sandwell Council’s Health Scrutiny Board, said a lack of funding was pushing health services towards breaking point.

“Our hospitals plan for winter pressures every year, but this year they appear to be worse than ever,” the Labour councillor said.

“The real winter run has not even started yet and already we are seeing hospitals put in a position where they are being forced to cancel operations. Staff are finding it difficult to cope. The only solution is for more funding for the NHS.”

Walsall Manor Hospital

Ambulances outside Walsall Manor Hospital

Roseanne Crossey, Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust's head of business development and planning, said the hospital had ‘opened up additional capacity’ to meet extra demand.

“We are where we expected to be at this busy time of year,” she said. “Our primary concern is the safe care of our patients, whether they are in the hospital, at home or being treated in the community.

“Our surgical procedures are going ahead with priority being given to cancer and urgent cases.”

Additional support put in place by the trust includes longer hours in GPs surgeries, while efforts are ongoing to discharge patients more quickly.

Trust bosses have also warned patients to stay away from the hospital’s A&E department unless their conditions require urgent treatment.

The trust came under immense pressure in the run up to Christmas, posting bed occupancy rates that were among the highest in the country.

Valerie Vaz, the Labour MP for Walsall South, said: "It could not be more clear. The NHS is not safe in Tory hands."

County Hospital, Stafford

County Hospital in Stafford, where non-emergency surgery had already been postponed

Bosses at the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust (UHMNT) which runs County Hospital had already planned to halt operations for the first two weeks of the month and now say they are considering extending the measures.

Medical director Dr John Oxtoby said: “The pausing of non-urgent elective surgery for the first two weeks in January 2018 is part of our comprehensive winter plan.

"We will continue to review the situation on a daily basis and will make a decision about extending these measures in due course.”

A&E services at Royal Stoke Hospital and County Hospital reached breaking point on the last weekend of 2017, with senior consultant Richard Fawcett reporting that he turned up for work to find a 12-hour wait to be seen in A&E and ‘over 25 patients on the corridor’.

He has subsequently apologised to patients for what he described as ‘Third World’ conditions, and said he was heartbroken to see so many frail and elderly patients languishing in corridors.

His colleague Dr Gareth Davies took to Twitter to announce that Royal Stoke Hospital was ‘on its knees’.

The problems with overcrowding were so acute that Country Hospital closed to ambulances for around five hours.

Dr Oxtoby has requested that patients only use A&E departments for ‘life threatening or urgent conditions’.