Hospitals all over England are declaring major incidents as they struggle to cope with the increasing number of patients requiring treatment. To date, at least 14 NHS hospitals have been affected leading to makeshift wards being set up, operations being cancelled, extra staff being called into work and some hospitals closing their doors.

When a major incident is declared, it is a sign that the hospital’s resources are over-stretched and special measures are required to help the hospital cope.

The latest official figures reveal that record numbers of patients are having long trolley waits. The Telegraph has reported that “in the two weeks over Christmas, almost 21,000 A&E patients waited between four and 12 hours on trolleys – almost four times as many as over the same period last year”. Furthermore, NHS statistics show that, over the past three months, more than 90,000 A&E patients have waited this long. The Telegraph noted that this figure is the highest it has been in a decade. 

So what is causing this worsening A&E crisis? The Independent suggests that it is a combination of factors. The increasingly aged population is placing increasing pressures on the NHS. Eleven million of us are now over the age of 65 and elderly people are at greater risk of illness and are generally more likely to need urgent and routine healthcare. Another possible factor being suggested is the £3.5bn government cuts to council social care budgets over the past four years. The Independent argues that these cuts have resulted in elderly people “whose needs are significant but not extreme” not receiving help with basic things like having a bath or cooking. Furthermore, The Independent notes that winter illnesses such as flu, chest infections and winter vomiting increase in the winter months place greater demand on A&E units. Long waits to see a GP could also be to blame as “it is estimated that around 30 per cent of those who attend A&E could have been treated elsewhere”.  

Steps need to be taken urgently to help stop this escalating problem as the standard of patient care and patient safety is being put at risk. President of the College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Cliff Mann, said that hospitals were “full to bursting”. Experts fear that more hospitals are likely to declare major incidents as they increasingly struggle with lack of resources and rising demand. 

Helen Hammond, associate in Penningtons Manches LLP’s clinical negligence team, said: "The crisis affecting A&E departments across England and Wales resonates with our continuing concerns over the NHS provision for elderly care. It is vital that NHS services are able to cope with the needs of the elderly during the winter season, as they often deteriorate quickly from what initially may have been a straightforward illness.  

“A simple problem such as a urine or chest infection will often result in an elderly person needing to be hospitalised. Due to their vulnerability, their nursing care needs will be high during their time as an in-patient. Hospitals frequently cannot cope with these needs and elderly patients sadly develop avoidable problems such as pressure sores or suffer falls on the wards.