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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 August, 2004, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
NHS 'loses 15,000 hospital beds'
Hospital ward
Ministers say beds have increased since 2000
The number of beds in NHS hospitals in England has dropped by 15,000 since 1997, official figures reveal.

According to the Department of Health, there were 198,848 NHS hospital beds seven years ago. Last year, that figure was 183,826 with London worst affected.

Officials say fewer beds are needed because medical advances mean patients spend less time in hospital.

But opposition parties say the figures raise questions over how money earmarked for the NHS is being spent.

Fewer beds

The figures show that beds in general and acute hospitals fell from 140,515 in 1997 to 136,679 last year.

Other areas have also been affected. Mental health, learning disabilities and geriatric wards have all seen a drop.

Where we need more beds, there are more beds
Health Minister John Hutton
In London, the overall number of hospitals beds has fallen from 32,158 in 1997 to 28,921.

In some cases, the beds have been closed because more patients are being treated in the community rather than in hospitals.

The Department of Health says fewer beds are also needed because more patients are now seen as day cases or are being treated in new fast-track surgery centres.

They say improvements in medical care mean others are being discharged earlier than they would have been just a few years ago.

In addition, officials said that while the number of hospital beds has fallen since 1997 they have increased every year since 2000, when the NHS Plan was published.

"Where we need more beds, there are more beds - in hospital and in intensive care," said Health Minister John Hutton.

"The number of general and acute beds has increased by 1,600 between 1999/00 and 2002/03.

"The total inpatient waiting list is at its lowest for over 16 years. Waiting times are falling further and faster than ever before and more patients are being treated more quickly."

However, opposition parties have raised questions about the fall in hospital bed numbers.

Money concerns

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "With nearly a million people still waiting for operations and with very high bed occupancy rates contributing to high hospital infection rates it is clear that hospitals are still not getting the resources through to the front lines. Where is the money going?"

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat spokesman for London, said: "Ministers appear to have their priorities all wrong.

"Patients who have been waiting weeks and months for admission to hospital will be right to ask how such reductions will be justified."

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