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Saturday, January 2, 1999 Published at 10:26 GMT


Hospitals 'facing winter crisis'

Some hospital units may have to close for patients' safety, the BMA said

Doctors have warned that hospitals around the UK are facing a crisis this winter to the extent that some units might be forced to close.

Alva Mc Nicol reports: The BMA says hospitals are struggling
The British Medical Association has told the BBC that accident and emergency departments are finding it hard to cope with a sharp rise in the number of patients caused by a flu epidemic, and there have been reports of people being left in corridors while they wait for treatment.

Opposition MPs claim operations have been put off because of a shortage of staff in intensive care units. The government has already come under fire from the Liberal Democrats who claim that it is draining money from the National Health Service because it is employing nurses from the private sector to fill nursing jobs.

After a consultant from Liverpool University Hospital warned his casualty department was only two days away from collapse, the BMA has now said that many more hospitals could be facing the same situation.

Frank Dobson: Hospitals are coping better than in the past
Health Secretary Frank Dobson admitted that there were "particular difficulties" in some parts of the country.

But he told Radio 4's Today programme the government had taken action to deal with the problem.

"All over the country the NHS - with the money we have provided especially for the winter pressure - is coping very well in very difficult circumstance."

Mr Dobson said there was an "acute" problem in the north west where there was a flu epidemic and ambulance calls in Liverpool and Manchester had increased from an average of 500 to 600 a day to 1,000.

But he said extra beds and staff had been provided and the health service was coping "better than it has in the past".

Ann Widdecombe: Health Secretary has "distorted" priorities
However Shadow Health Secretary Ann Widdecombe said Mr Dobson had to take responsibility for some of the problems as he had failed to take action and claimed back in November that the NHS could look forward to the future with confidence.

"The extraordinary thing is that the Secretary of State did not allow for this to happen," she told Today.

"He has been putting such emphasis on waiting list initiatives that he has distorted priorities elsewhere."

She acknowledged that the government had managed to push some waiting lists down, but said the times for some operations were increasing.

[ image: Frank Dobson: Extra staff provided to cope with difficulties]
Frank Dobson: Extra staff provided to cope with difficulties
"At exactly the same time that they announce big falls in the numbers on the list, they have to admit that those waiting more than 12 months have actually doubled since the election.

"That is because all their efforts have gone into getting quick, simple operations done so that numbers come down but those on the list for longer, more complex ones have gone on waiting."

And Liberal Democrat health spokesman Dr Evan Harris said the government had put political priorities above the needs of patients by concentrating on getting waiting lists down and had been complacent on staffing problems.

He said: "The government's funding strategy relied on a less virulent strain of flu emerging - it is coming apart at the genes."

The row was triggered by claims from the BMA that some hospital units might be forced to close because of the pressure they are under.

Dr Peter Hawker: Staff are making a "superhuman" effort to keep NHS running
Dr Peter Hawker, chairman of the BMA's Consultant Committee, said many hospitals are struggling to cope, despite the "superhuman" efforts of their staff.

"I can see circumstances where with an increase in emergency admissions with, for example flu epidemic, some units will have to close on the grounds of patient safety," he said.

Geoff Martin: "Desperate straits"
Meanwhile, Geoff Martin, the London Convenor of Unison, said that staff shortages amongst his members are contributing to the problems facing the National Health Service.

"Unless [the government] addresses the fundamental issue of staff pay we're not going to get enough nurses and other health workers into the system to run the beds and to run the wards and the casualty departments."

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