Struggling hospitals have been told to continue the suspension of all non-urgent surgery until the end of January amid fears of a winter NHS meltdown.
The National Emergency Pressures Panel, which is chaired by the NHS’s top doctor Sir Bruce Keogh, said the NHS has been under “sustained pressure” over Christmas and needs to free up doctors and nurses to deal with the sickest patients.
It said “high levels of respiratory illness”, a rise in the number of flu cases and an increase in patients arriving at A&E with serious health problems had been noted over the festive period.
The delay that will affect hundreds of thousands patients had already been in force until mid-January, but the panel says the deferral of all non-urgent inpatient elective care will now be extended to January 31.
Sir Bruce said: “I want to thank NHS staff who have worked incredibly hard under sustained pressure to take care of patients over the Christmas.
“We expect these pressures to continue and there are early signs of increased flu prevalence.
“The NHS needs to take further action to increase capacity and minimise disruptive last minute cancellations. That is why we are making these further recommendations today.”
Underlining the pressures being felt by the health service, one A&E doctor apologised to patients for the “third world conditions” in his overcrowded unit.
Dr Richard Fawcett, a consultant in emergency medicine at the Royal Stoke hospital, tweeted on Tuesday: “As an A&E consultant at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust I personally apologise to the people of Stoke for the 3rd world conditions of the dept due to #overcrowding.”
Hospitals have now been told to cancel any day-case and outpatient procedures, which would not require an overnight bed and where patients would typically walk out after being seen.
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