A surge in the number of flu and Covid admissions to hospitals in England is adding to a “storm of pressure” facing the health service, NHS leaders have said.
Figures released on Friday showed that in Christmas week, there were on average 3,631 patients with Covid in hospital, up 57% from the same week in November.
Cases of norovirus were up 61% from the same period last year, while serious flu cases also continued to spiral, with an average of 942 patients with flu in hospital each day in the week to 24 December, including 48 in critical care.
The figure is almost six times higher than in November and double the total a fortnight ago , albeit below the numbers for the equivalent week in 2022 when the UK experienced the worst flu season for a decade.
The winter viruses are having a knock-on effect on staffing, NHS England data shows, with an average of 2,597 employees off with Covid alone each day last week, up 51% from November.
Meanwhile, 10,000 patients had to spend Christmas in hospital, despite being well enough to go home. Of the 18,669 patients who were fit to leave hospital on Christmas Eve, only 8,667 were actually discharged.
In January, the prime minister announced a new plan to avoid another NHS winter crisis. It pledged to create another 5,000 beds in English hospitals before winter and reduce bed occupancy rates. But Friday’s figures show that as of 24 December there were only 3,613 extra beds, while bed occupancy rates remain stubbornly high at 91.4%, although this is lower than previous weeks.
The figures come ahead of a six-day strike by junior doctors next week over pay, with thousands more appointments and operations expected to be cancelled. During last week’s three-day strike 86,329 appointments and operations were rescheduled.
Prof Stephen Powis, the NHS England medical director, said the impact of next week’s strike would probably be “much more severe”, at a time of high demand and higher levels of virus admissions.
“These figures demonstrate the storm of pressure the NHS is facing, however, with huge rises in flu patients over the last few weeks and many more norovirus cases than we saw last winter, as well as the ongoing impact of Covid – all on top of the added pressure of industrial action.”
The chief executive of NHS Providers, Julian Hartley, said the “worrying” winter virus figures demonstrated the “scale of the challenge” facing trusts and staff called for more pay talks. “We urge the government and unions to think afresh, and find a way to resolve the damaging and demoralising industrial dispute which has caused so much disruption for patients. There is still time to head off the longest strike in the history of the NHS.”
Opposition parties accused the government of not prioritising the NHS. The Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Daisy Cooper, said: “Hospitals have been underfunded for years under this Conservative government, leaving both patients and hardworking NHS staff struggling. The NHS and the number of beds available for people in need should be a key priority for the government, yet these figures suggest that is far from the case.”
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said the “misery” caused by the delayed discharges over Christmas was “entirely avoidable” and promised more “care in the community”.
“Thirteen years of Conservative cuts to social care and district nurses left 10,000 patients in hospital for Christmas Day who didn’t need to be there,” he said. “The next Labour government … will introduce a fair pay agreement for care workers to tackle staff shortages and trial new heighbourhood health centres, so fewer patients need to go to hospital in the first place.”