Lack of NHS staff meant hospitals had to cancel 30k ops last year'

Lack of NHS staff meant hospitals had to cancel 30,000 operations last year, Labour analysis claims

  • Hospitals cancelled 158,000 procedures for non-clinical reasons last year
  • The figure is almost double the 79,000 affected by delays in 2018/19
  • Staff shortages were the most common excuse cited by NHS trusts in 2021/22

Hospitals cancelled 30,000 operations last year because there were not enough staff available to deliver them, damning figures suggest.

In total, 158,000 procedures were postponed for non-clinical reasons – almost double the 79,000 affected in 2018/19.

Staff shortages were the most common excuse cited by NHS trusts in 2021/22, accounting for almost one in five of those affected.

Some 13,000 operations were cancelled because of a shortage of beds, 5,700 because of equipment failure and 12,600 because of administrative errors.

In total, 158,000 procedures were postponed for non-clinical reasons at hospitals across England last year – almost double the 79,000 affected in 2018/19

More than 7.2million patients in England were stuck in the backlog in October (red line)— or one in eight people. More than 400,000 have queued for at least one year (yellow bars)

Bed blockers

Some 13,000 hospital beds across the country — or one in seven — are currently filled with patients declared fit for discharge. The figure is triple the pre-pandemic average.

And there is huge variation across the country. In London, half of patients were discharged on time but the figure was as low as 28 per cent in the North West. 

Experts say the numbers are being driven by a separate crisis in social care, leaving patients left to languish on wards for up to nine months because there is no suitable nursing accommodation or care available for them in the community. 

The lack of beds has seen ambulances stuck in queues for 20 hours outside of hospitals this summer, as emergency medics scramble to find beds for patients. This is had a knock-on effect on response times. 

Workforce shortages

The NHS, which employs over a million people, has around 130,000 vacancies across its entire workforce.

This reduces productivity, with too fewer staff to carry out appointments and procedures.

Health chiefs also warn that it stops staff from delivering high-quality care and can lead to safety concerns if too few staff are working. In turn, medics are at a higher risk of burnout, illness and early retirement due to these factors. 

Surge in seasonal viruses 

More than 1,000 beds per day are taken up by patients severely unwell with seasonal viruses. 

NHS data shows Britons sickened with influenza occupied 712 beds, on average, each day last week. Flu levels are much higher than this time last year. Meanwhile, norovirus accounted for 318 taken beds per day and RSV saw 132 occupied. 

Strep A fears

Nine children in the UK have died in recent weeks due to an outbreak of Strep A.

The bacterial infection is harmless for the vast majority. But it can cause life-threatening illness if the bacteria invade the blood, muscles or lungs.

Doctors have warned that A&E, GPs and ambulances are in meltdown due to a surge in demand from parents worried that their child is infected.

Patients have faced longer emergency department waits, while some hospitals have postponed routine procedures to cope with demand.

Covid pressures

Around 4,700 beds per day were occupied by a patient infected with Covid in the week to November 30.

Two-thirds were primarily admitted for another ailment, such as a broken leg, but happened to test positive.

However, infected patients still pile pressure on the health service as they have to be isolated from others.

The virus also contributes to higher rates of staff sickness.  

GP appointment crisis

Campaign groups, MPs and senior medics say desperate patients are turning to emergency and walk-in services because they can’t get a face-to-face appointment with their GP.

The average GP in England is responsible for 2,200 patients now – up from 1,900 in 2016. In the areas with poorest access, up to 2,600 patients are fighting over one family doctor.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) has previously warned difficulties in seeing a GP was leading to a crisis in emergency departments.

A further 15,500 were cancelled as theatre lists overran, 9,500 because an emergency case took priority, and 250 due to adverse weather.

The data is based on 50 responses to Freedom of Information requests submitted to 122 acute trusts by the Labour Party.

The estimated totals have been calculated by extrapolating from the 39 per cent of responses received.

It comes as official figures from NHS Digital show staff vacancies in the NHS are at a record high, with 133,000 full-time equivalent posts unfilled.

The vacancy rate – the number of vacancies as a proportion of planned staffing levels – stood at 9.7 per cent in England at the end of September.

Meanwhile, an average of 54,581 NHS staff were off sick in England in the seven days to December 4.

Waiting lists are also at an all-time high of 7.2million, with numbers soaring during the pandemic as hospitals prioritised Covid.

The FOI responses indicate 10,000 of the cancelled operations last year were ‘urgent’, 2,500 for cancer patients and 8,000 for children.

Separate NHS figures show record numbers of operations cancelled last minute are not rearranged to take place within a month, with one in five patients waiting longer.

The number of operations cancelled due to staff shortages has trebled since 2018/19 from 10,900 and the number cancelled due to faulty equipment has also risen, from 4,800.

Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said his party would double the number medical school places, training 15,000 doctors a year.

He added: ‘Patients are forced to wait longer for vital operations because the Conservatives have failed to train enough staff over the past 12 years.

‘Having operations cancelled causes huge disruption to patients, and prevents them from being able to get on with their lives.

‘Labour will tackle this problem at its root.

‘We will train a new generation of doctors and nurses so patients get the treatment they need, when they need it.

‘We will abolish non-doms to pay for it because patients need treatment more than the wealthiest need a tax break and if you live and work in Britain you should pay your taxes here.’

Mary Clews, 72, had surgery to remove a brain tumour cancelled twice in two weeks at the Royal Stoke University Hospital in September due to a lack of beds.

Daughter Lucy, 34, told the Stoke Sentinel at the time: ‘It’s getting ridiculous, it’s a lot of stress for her and the family.’

Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive at NHS Providers, said: ‘These worrying findings show just how much pressure trusts are under due to chronic staff shortages.

‘We currently have a staggering 133,000 vacancies in the NHS, which impacts patients’ access to care.

‘The failure of multiple governments over many years to deliver an effective NHS workforce plan is at the root of this growing problem.

‘Now, looming strike action and rapidly rising demand threaten to exacerbate the situation this winter.

‘Trust leaders are doing all they can to deliver high-quality services, but staff are overstretched.

‘We welcomed the chancellor’s commitment to publish a comprehensive NHS workforce plan in 2023, which has been desperately needed for years.

‘We are clear that to be effective, the plan must be fully costed and fully funded to tackle severe health and social care workforce shortages, improve waiting times and properly address the elective care backlog.’

In other related news…

A wave of NHS strikes began on Monday, with health workers in Northern Ireland braving the freezing cold to man 24-hour picket lines in a row over pay

Even Keir Starmer has admitted the NHS nurse strikes are unaffordable, begging the union to negotiate with ministers 

Rogue ambulance drivers could refuse ‘life and limb care’ on strike days, union warns ahead of the biggest paramedic walk-out in in three decades 

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