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Saturday, 8 January, 2000, 14:27 GMT
Flu pushes NHS to breaking point

by BBC News Online's Barry Neild

The death of an intensive care patient who was shuttled from hospital to hospital in search of a bed has highlighted the dangerous strain flu casualties are placing on the National Health Service.

Flu nightmare
Every winter the UK seems to be struck down by the same crisis as flu cases soar and hospitals struggle to cope with the demand.

Despite politicians' pledges to solve the problem, NHS patients are again enduring discomfort, anxiety and life-threatening delays.

The death of 74-year-old Harold Smith in south Wales is the latest in a long line of symptoms which seem to suggest that, so far, attempts to cure the NHS's annual blight have been purely palliative.

'Body jam'

Last winter Norfolk and Norwich Hospital sparked outrage when it drafted in a refrigerated lorry to cope with a "body jam" as unprecedented demand was piled on its mortuary.

This year, largely without comment, the lorries have returned in numbers, with bodies being piled into trailers parked outside Eastbourne District General Hospital and Hastings Conquest Hospital in East Sussex.

Nurses Nurses face poor wages

The situation is expected to worsen with up to 77% of households expected to be affected by flu by the end of the week.

The crisis offers an easy target for opposition politicians seeking to explode Labour's jubilant post-election promises of radical NHS reform.

They can also point to the situation in Europe and North America, where similar flu outbreaks appear to have been handled without the situation reaching crisis point.

Nineteen US states and several European countries are currently stretching their medical capacities to the limit as flu epidemics take hold.

Contingency measures

But only the UK, where flu incidences are technically below epidemic proportions, seems to lack the contingency measures necessary to prevent incidents such as the death of Mr Smith.

The factors behind this are well documented, with annual reports pointing fingers at shortages of beds and nurses, low pay, lack of funding, over emphasis on waiting list cuts and low morale.

Faced with criticism, health ministers continue to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the previous government's privatisation policies.

Nurses are tired and getting ill, they do not have the resources to continue
The RCN's Christine Hancock

The government continues to pursue long-term solutions, channeling resources into primary care on a local level, shifting funding and responsibility into the hands of GPs.

It has also established NHS Direct, a largely successful telephone advice service staffed by nurses.

In principle, these reforms are designed to ease the burden on accident and emergency units.

But as experts are keen to point out, when people fall sick they inevitably think of hospitals - a situation likely to continue until the public can be convinced primary services are up to the job.

Christine Hancock Christine Hancock: problems blamed on staff shortages

In the short run, with NHS trusts such as Plymouth's currently coping with a 40% illness-related shortfall in staff, it seems some obvious problems are being ignored.

Christine Hancock, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is adamant chronic staff shortages are responsible for the current pressure on hospitals

She shrugged off accusations that medical staff were taking untimely holidays, telling the BBC: "Nurses are tired and getting ill - they do not have the resources to continue."

Poor wages

According to government figures, there are 15,000 nursing vacancies in England. The RCN blames the situation largely on poor wages.

This view is shared by Conservative health spokesman Phillip Hammond, who points out the government has had two-and-a-half years to get things right.

"My local hospital has an eight bed intensive care unit. Only six beds are in operation and I think that situation is repeated around the country," he said.

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See also:
08 Jan 00 |  UK
Man dies after hospital bed hunt
05 Jan 00 |  Health
Flu outbreak claims youngest victim
08 Jan 00 |  Scotland
NHS 'can cope with flu outbreak'
07 Jan 00 |  Health
Flu jabs for health workers 'save lives'
28 Dec 99 |  Health
Holiday flu grips nation

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