The depths of the NHS crisis have been laid bare by a series of cases of sick children forced to wait hours in A&E departments for hospital beds.
One 12-year-old with learning disabilities and mental health issues had to stay in an Essex hospital A&E for 57 hours for a specialist bed to become available, a leaked NHS email shows. She was one of four children left “in the middle of an emergency department” because of bed shortages.
She was eventually transferred to a bed in London.
Another child, which was not a mental health case, had to wait 17 hours in A&E over the weekend at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
It comes after a photograph showed four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr sleeping on the floor of a Leeds hospital, an oxygen mask on his face, suffering suspected pneumonia. Boris Johnson refused to even look at the picture when shown it by a TV reporter.
Bizarrely, Mr Johnson took the smartphone showing the picture from reporter Joe Pike and put it in his pocket. It was only after Mr Pike pointed out what the PM had done that Johnson looked at the image, saying: “It’s a terrible, terrible photo and I apologise obviously to the family and those who have terrible experiences in the NHS.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the Prime Minister was “a disgrace of a man” while Jeremy Corbyn said the clip showed Mr Johnson “just doesn’t care” about the child’s plight. Mr Johnson later twice dodged questions about whether the incident showed him to be uncaring, responding instead with promises to put more funds into Leeds General Infirmary.
Health secretary Matt Hancock was later dispatched to Leeds for a briefing on the case from the hospital’s chief executive and emerged to say he was “horrified” by the picture and had apologised to Jack’s family.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have promised to increase funding for the NHS. The Tories are offering an extra £34bn by 2023-24 compared to 2018-19, an average spend of 3.1 per cent. Labour has said it will boost health spending by 4.3 per cent a year as part of a £26bn “rescue package”.
NHS hospitals are reporting record numbers of patients in A&E departments alongside a spike in flu cases and more than 1,100 beds closed at the end of November due to an outbreak of norovirus.
There is a national shortage of mental health beds across the country with patients either being sent hundreds of miles or forced to take up space in physical health hospitals meaning longer delays for waiting patients.
On 5 December Mid Essex Hospitals A&E consultant, Brian Kennedy, sent a desperate email to colleagues asking for help.
He said he felt he needed to “highlight concerns” around the 12-year-old girl who at that stage had been in the A&E for 44 hours and 20 minutes.
Dr Kennedy said: “She is one of four mental health patients in the department, the next is a vulnerable adult with significant LD [learning disabilities] who has been here for 18 hours.”
He added: “As wonderful as the [emergency department] staff are they are unable to offer optimal environment (sic) for patient with acute mental health illnesses.”
A source at the Mid Essex trust told The Independent: “Whilst it’s unacceptable that there are no beds available for this child, what’s really awful is the lack of planning for this and the ongoing lack of engagement from NHS England and the mental health trust in finding a solution.
“This will result in harm to the child, who is essentially living in the middle of an emergency department, and risks harming other patients who need that cubicle and the emergency department staff.”
Since 1987-88 the number of mental health beds in England has fallen by 73 per cent from about 67,100 to 18,400, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
It believes at least 1,000 extra beds are needed.
NHS England has pledged to end the practice of sending patients miles from their home towns for a mental health bed by 2021.
A spokesperson for Birmingham Children’s Hospital confirmed a patient waited 17 hours adding: “To put this into some context we saw over 220 patients on Sunday and the average waiting time was 4.1 hours. On Saturday the average waiting time for our patients in ED was 4.8 hours.”
Andy Brogan, chief operating officer at Essex Partnership University Foundation Trust, said: “On 5 December all our mental health inpatient beds for children and young people were full, and we were unable to admit any other patients. Bed availability varies on a daily basis; we work with commissioners and other partners to keep them appraised of the situation to ensure patients can be moved closer to home as soon as possible.”