Hospitals have been forced to close more than 1,000 beds after a viral outbreak struck the NHS last week, sparking fears of an earlier-than-usual winter crisis with hospitals reporting record A&E attendances and a spike in flu cases.
A national alert has been issued by NHS England over the spate of norovirus cases which have led to dozens of wards being quarantined. In total, 1,100 beds were out of action last week.
NHS leaders said the service was bracing itself for a hard winter which “could have a serious effect on the delivery of services”.
The health service has been a key battleground during the election, with all parties promising billions in more spending.
The Independent has learned Nottingham University Hospitals Trust, one of the largest hospitals in the NHS, saw 766 patients in A&E at the city’s Queen’s Medical Centre on 25 November – a record for any day so far this year.
The East Midlands trust has also had to close around 150 beds due to the norovirus outbreak.
University Hospitals of Leicester Trust also reported record A&E demand on 25 November with 814 attendances at A&E. The trust also had two wards affected by norovirus with a handful of patients infected.
Four hospital wards were closed at Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading earlier this week while the bug has led to staff being off-sick at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral with “several cases” on a number of wards.
Mundella Primary School in Sheffield was also closed last week with “very high volumes” of children off sick.
In addition the number of hospital admissions for seasonal flu have also risen higher than last year, with the north of England particularly badly hit.
There are concerns England could see a similar flu season to Australia, which was one of the worst to hit the southern hemisphere in recent years with reports of 272,000 infected and more than 660 dead.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said: “This could be a worrying sign that the predictions of a harsh winter may already be a reality.
“We are going into what is traditionally the NHS’s busiest time with a health and care system already under severe demand pressure.
“Patient safety is the top priority for trusts, but alongside high levels of staff vacancies, an outbreak of flu or norovirus could have a serious effect on the delivery of services.”
NHS England has issued a nationwide alert revealing 1,100 beds were closed in the last week and warned the public to stay at home if they have the virus, which can cause projectile vomiting and diarrhoea.
Anyone who has the virus should not go back to work or school until at least 48 hours after symptoms pass.
National surveillance data from Public Health England (PHE) showed the number of positive norovirus laboratory confirmed cases during the two weeks in the middle of November was 28 per cent higher than for the same period in the previous five years.
NHS England said almost double the number of hospital beds had been closed every day over the last week than at the same time last year.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS medical director, said: “We’ve already seen a number of hospitals and schools affected by norovirus, and unfortunately instances like these are likely to rise over the coming weeks.
“It’s a really unpleasant illness to catch, but for the vast majority of people it will usually pass in a couple of days, and self-treating at home is the best way to help yourself and avoid putting others at risk.”
Public health officials have stressed the best ways to protect against the virus is to wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after using the toilet or before eating and preparing food.
If people have symptoms of norovirus they should not visit their GP or hospital.