'Unprecedented demand' on Ipswich Hospital

Sheila Mason died at Ipswich Hospital after a fall at her home in October

Sheila Mason died at Ipswich Hospital after a fall at her home in October - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Colchester and Ipswich hospitals are almost at capacity as they struggle to work through the backlog of surgeries resulting from the Covid pandemic.

There is “unprecedented” demand on waiting lists and the hospitals are now 96 per cent full, the hospital trust’s chief executive has said as it is warned the NHS could face a greater crisis this winter than it did last year thanks to a 'perfect storm' of staff shortages, Covid pressures, winter flu and growing waiting lists for elective surgery.

Nick Hulme, chief executive of East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, also told the All Part Parliamentary Group on coronavirus that the current situation is almost “nigh on impossible” to properly manage.

Recent A&E figures for the trust – which runs Colchester Hospital and Ipswich Hospital – saw the percentage of patients seen within four hours fall from 90.5 per cent in July 2019 to 86.3 per cent in July 2021 despite the numbers of patients seen in A&E falling from 28,000 to around 26,000.

With staff shortages continuing, case numbers and hospitalisations increasing, minimal restrictions in place, the imminent return of schools and an expected surge in seasonal flu, it has been warned that the NHS faces a potentially greater crisis this winter than last year and said there could be a higher risk that health services could fail to cope this winter.

Mr Hulme said: “I can talk very specifically about what’s happening in the east of England and that there is no reason to believe in conversations I’ve had with colleagues across the country that we’re any different – that perfect storm of increased activity through A&E departments, the elective waiting list which is unprecedented.

“It does feel actually worse than many winters that I’ve experienced over the years because of the added complication of Covid.

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“And trying to manage a hospital that is as of this morning 96% full of its general and acute beds is nigh on impossible.

“We do it and there’s been lots of conversations about will the NHS cope.

“The answer is yes we will because we always do, but at what cost of the elective program, what costs to our patients and of course what costs to our staff.”

He added: “I would ask for investment in capital to create standalone elective treatment centres for orthopaedics and for other elective procedures so that we can protect the elective pathways that they won’t be basically sidelined or knocked out of kilter by the emergency work.

“We need very quick decision making and authorisation of that. We’re currently waiting four years for authorisation of an orthopaedic collective centre that will take 18 months to build.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus is conducting a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic and has so far held 27 hearings and made over 50 recommendations.

The APPG brings together 74 MPs and peers from across the political spectrum, representing all four nations and every Westminster party.

Following its most recent evidence–gathering session yesterday, the group has called on the government to urgently address the pressure on NHS staff ahead of the winter months after a panel of experts, including Mr Hulme, detailed the challenges facing healthcare workers.

In a session of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, expert witnesses outlined how staff shortages due to exhaustion and poor mental health have created serious challenges in hospitals and clinics across the country.

Layla Moran MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, said: “Hospital admissions are exponentially higher compared to this time last year when we were weeks away from a winter lockdown. With experts describing staff shortages, workers 'battered by the system' and an expected surge in seasonal flu, we should be extremely worried about a potential disaster for the NHS this winter.

“The government must urgently increase resources for the NHS and outline how they intend to improve conditions and address the mental health crisis facing healthcare workers.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are providing a record amount of funding to the NHS, with an extra £29 billion this year alone to support health and care services, including £1 billion to help tackle the backlog that has built up during the pandemic."