Hospitals across the country are at “breaking point” as a winter surge threatens to overwhelm the NHS.
NHS trusts have been forced to cancel operations, divert ambulances and leave patients on trolleys as thousands wait for treatment.
In one hospital, four patients were left for at least an entire day before a space on a ward became available.
The crisis comes as voters go to the polls today in a general election where funding for the overstretched health service has dominated the debate.
Boris Johnson was criticised for his response to the case of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia who was forced to sleep on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary, earlier this week.
Now NHS staff have reported a surge in demand over the weekend and into this week that has crippled some services.
Ambulance call handlers received thousands of extra 999 requests while dozens of ambulances were stuck at hospitals because of delays handing over patients to overstretched A&E staff.
Four patients waited over 24 hours for a medical bed in Preston Hospital’s A&E on Monday and Tuesday. A member of staff said the trust had declared an internal incident on Monday morning, with 38 patients waiting on trolleys at Tuesday lunchtime.
They said: “I’m fed up with slaloming my way between patients on trolleys in corridors to get to other patients. It’s now as bad as I remember it when I started work pre the four-hour target in A&E.”
Karen Partington, the chief executive of Lancashire Teaching Hospitals Trust, said the trust was “exceptionally busy” with sicker patients than usual, which meant inevitable delays. She apologised to patients experiencing long waits and added: “We trust that everyone understands that we must prioritise those who need emergency treatment.”
Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital declared a “black alert” on Saturday night after 195 ambulances turned up with sick patients, a 46 per cent rise, the trust said.
It has been on red alert, one step down from black, for most of the last week but it has not cancelled operations or seen 12-hour waits for a bed.
Lewisham and Greenwich Trust in London declared an internal black alert after recording its busiest day ever at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, with 605 patients attending its A&E.
Chief executive Ben Travis described pressure on the trust as “relentless”, but a spokesperson said despite this, there were no cancelled operations.
North Middlesex University Hospital Trust recorded a record 660 patients for any Tuesday this week.
Elsewhere, Nottingham University Hospitals Trust declared a black alert on Monday and opened up six additional beds and had to cancel operations to try to make space for the more than 30 patients crowded into its A&E department on Tuesday afternoon.
Stoke Mandeville hospital declared a major incident on Monday night after a problem in its operating theatre forced it to divert ambulances and shift operations to neighbouring hospitals. Theatres re-opened on Tuesday.
One NHS source said there were “12-hour breaches” everywhere in Lancashire earlier this week, with around 110 patients waiting for beds across the region on Tuesday morning.
West Midlands Ambulance Service said it saw a 23 per cent rise in 999 calls on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday compared with last year, with a total of 12,895 calls compared with 10,512.
It saw 421 hours of lost ambulance time on Monday as paramedics waited to hand over patients to overstretched A&E staff. This is the equivalent of 35 ambulances during a typical 12-hour shift.
The East Midlands Ambulance Trust also reported more than 10,000 999 calls over the three-day period with 462 hours lost on Monday.
Ben Holdaway, the director of operations, said there had been “a significant increase in demand”.
He warned: “Hospital handover delays put our patients at risk either because they are waiting in an ambulance, which isn’t designed for prolonged care, or because we’re not able to leave the hospital and respond to other 999 calls that continue to come in.
“Neither us nor the hospitals want this, and so we are doing everything in our power to improve this situation for our patients.”
East of England Ambulance Trust declared its highest level of surge demand at 11pm on Tuesday and cancelled meal-breaks for staff.
A spokesperson for South Central Ambulance Service said there had been an 11 per cent spike in calls on Saturday, compared with the previous six weeks, although they said demand since then had decreased slightly.
One senior NHS source told The Independent: “Hospitals are doing their best but some of them are beyond breaking point.
“Everyone has been worried about a winter crisis and the simple fact is there is a limit to what can be done when you’re seeing double-digit growth in demand. What’s really worrying is many of these patients are genuinely sick and do need to be in hospital, but the system just isn’t capable of coping with the level of demand being asked of it.”
Miriam Deakin, the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which represents hospitals in the NHS, said there was no denying trusts and staff were under “immense pressures” with demand rising “at a worrying rate”.
She added: “When bed closures are mixed with this high demand and severe workforce shortages trusts will be forced to make difficult decisions. In some cases this winter, routine and planned operations may be cancelled as a last resort to ensure that staff can focus on patients that need their attention most urgently.
“Behind the pressure is a widening gap between the rising demand for care and the capacity to cope. For year after year, we have tried to meet rising demand for care by asking staff to work harder. That’s coincided with growing vacancies – now more than 100,000 – adding to pressure on overstretched staff.”
NHS England was approached for comment.