Leading doctors have warned of their “great concern” for the NHS in the week ahead with bitterly cold conditions and widespread snow forecast.
Temperatures reached -9C on Saturday night as the Met Office warned parts of England and Wales were likely to see their coldest spells of weather since at least 2013 – and perhaps since 1991.
“The onset of a spell of extremely cold weather is of great concern for acute medical units who are already struggling with the widely reported stresses of this winter,” said Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine.
“Daily temperatures below the normal ambient level increase illness and hospital admission rates for cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, particularly among those aged 65 and over.
“Last week’s performance figures showed an 11% rise on the previous week in influenza admissions along with sustained dangerously high bed occupancy rates, so the situation is grave.”
He said handling of winter preparations and the ongoing challenges on the frontline nationally showed there was “little understanding of how unamangeable things have become”.
Figures released last week by NHS Improvement showed there were more than 100,000 unfilled vacancies in the NHS and trusts predicting a year-end deficit of £931 million.
“There is little on the horizon in the way of optimism for the future state of the acute services given the massive staffing issues and strain on resources made evident this last week,” said Dr Scriven.
“So far this winter we have seen the NHS survive on the goodwill and effort of hard-pressed staff of all levels who have gone the extra mile to ensure safe and high quality treatment in the most difficult of circumstances.
“However, the challenges keep increasing and this week is another example of how the authorities simply cannot gamble on hard-working staff saving the day – it is not sustainable or fair and will be the downfall of our health service.”
Acute medicine, also known as acute internal medicine, deals with the immediate and early treatment of adult patients with a variety of medical conditions who present to hospital as emergencies.
The specialty receives the majority of patients admitted from A&E and plays a vital role in maintaining the flow of patients through emergency departments to avoid exit block, the term used when patients cannot be moved into a hospital bed.