NHS hospitals in England appear quieter than usual for this time of year even though they are treating more than 9,000 patients with coronavirus.
A leaked document claims 84 per cent of all hospital beds were occupied across the country yesterday, which is lower than the 92 per cent recorded during autumn last year.
But the 84 per cent figure, revealed by the Health Service Journal, suggests that the health service as a whole is not under as much strain as officials imply.
Bed occupancy has not averaged lower than 85 per cent in any normal three-month period for the past decade.
The only exception to this was between April and June this year, when it stood at 64 per cent because hospitals were forced to turf out thousands of non-Covid patients to make space for the epidemic.
Regional differences in the coronavirus outbreak mean some places are feeling more strain than others – one major hospital trust in Liverpool is already be treating more Covid-19 patients than it was in the spring.
Officials are making repeated comparisons to the spring situation as a shorthand for crisis but will not explain how busy hospitals actually are.
Tens of thousands of beds went unused during the peak of the first wave of Covid-19 and officials and officials say the ‘available capacity’ of hospitals is only around 20,000, prompting startling warnings they could run out of room by next month.
And coronavirus data for all of England now shows that the number of people in hospital with the disease dropped on Sunday for the first time in a month, falling from 9,213 to 9,077.
Daily admissions also fell on Saturday – the most recent data – from 1,345 new patients on Friday to 1,109 on October 30. Oxford University’s Professor Carl Heneghan, a vocal critic of lockdown policies, today said the outbreak is ‘flatlining’.
Hospital bed occupancy this year dropped to its lowest percentage for a decade when medics had to turf out thousands of inpatients to make room for a predicted surge in people with Covid-19. Now that normal care has resumed, a leaked report suggests there are still fewer than average numbers of beds in use
Even during the peak of the first wave of coronavirus in the UK, Covid-19 patients never accounted for more than 30 per cent of all hospital patients and tens of thousands of vacated beds went unused during the spring
Professor Heneghan said on BBC Radio 4 this morning: ‘Right now cases are shifting in a way they weren’t three weeks ago. They are starting to flatline.
‘Admissions are flatlining and, in effect, deaths are starting to flatline so there will be an update, I hope, on this system tomorrow, on Wednesday, that will give us a clear understanding of where we’re going.’
The number of people on ventilators in intensive care in England also fell on Sunday, from 815 to 802.
Downhearted officials and politicians have repeatedly warned the NHS is on course to become overwhelmed by the second wave of coronavirus.
Boris Johnson was reportedly told by members of SAGE, just days before he announced lockdown 2.0 last week, that hospitals would fill up by December 17 if he didn’t take tougher action.
Slides presented in the briefing on Saturday suggested this could happen even sooner.
Medics fear the numbers of people needing care for Covid-19 will become so large that they won’t be able to treat people with cancer and other serious diseases.
Doctors already face a huge backlog in cancelled or postponed non-urgent operations and procedures, on which they are now desperately trying to catch up. A resurgence in people who need saving from Covid would put this progress in jeopardy.
But the data obtained by the HSJ shows that hospitals are less full than usual despite having 70 per cent more patients than they did in the spring.
They have around twice as many non-Covid patients – more than 70,000 on wards as of yesterday – along with 9,000 coronavirus patients, and still have at least 10,000 beds available.
At the most recent measure – during the first quarter of 2020/21 – the NHS had a total of 118,451 beds available, of which 92,596 were general hospital beds. The others were on maternity, mental health and learning disabilities units.
This is not thought to include capacity in Nightingale hospitals or private wards that have been rented out. Thousands of beds were put on standby when ministers feared a catastrophic wave of patients with coronavirus, but many were never used.
Full data has not been published about daily bed occupancy and the NHS is coming under growing pressure to show the real state of pressure on its hospitals.
Coronavirus data for all of England now shows that the number of people in hospital with the disease dropped on Sunday, November 1 for the first time in a month, falling from 9,213 to 9,077
Daily admissions also fell on Saturday – the most recent data – from 1,345 new patients on Friday to 1,109 on October 30
Explaining why Covid-only numbers may be misleading, Professor Heneghan added: ‘One of the things about hospital admissions is it doesn’t take into account discharges; it also doesn’t tell you who that person is – for instance everybody going into hospital is being tested.
‘If you look at the patients in hospital data, that’s a much more useful measure and if you look at that on the 31st October it was 9,213 and it actually dropped for the first time on 1st November to 9,077 by about 130 patients.
‘That’s the first drop in over a month on that data set. So I would look at patients in hospital, not the number being actually admitted which is very variable and quite noisy in what its context is.’
The data obtained by the HSJ shows that confirmed cases of coronavirus are taking up 10 per cent of all hospital beds, up from six per cent a fortnight ago.
During the peak of the crisis in spring this figure never exceeded 30 per cent.
A spokesperson for the NHS said: ‘NHS doctors and nurses in many areas of England are now treating more COVID-19 patients than at the peak of the first wave and the key to sustaining services is ensuring rising coronavirus admissions don’t displace other care, as is currently happening in some French, German and Dutch hospitals, as well as parts of the North West and Midlands.
‘Hospitals have used the opportunity over the summer since the first covid wave both to prepare for winter and to ramp up routine operations, screening and other services, and GPs are now providing more appointments than this time last year.’