Heart attack patients calling 999 in parts of northern England are being asked to get a lift instead of waiting for an ambulance as hospitals in the region experience more than double the growth rate in numbers of Covid patients compared with London.
Four more NHS trusts in England – all outside London – declared “critical incidents” on Tuesday amid soaring staff absences, rising numbers of Covid patients and growing pressure on emergency services.
There is cautious optimism that cases and hospitalisations in the capital – which was the centre of the Omicron variant outbreak – are beginning to level off. However, hospitals at the other end of the country are experiencing the fastest growth in Covid occupancy, according to an analysis of official NHS data by the Guardian.
The highest rate of growth in England is in the north-east and Yorkshire, where the number of Covid patients in hospitals has more than doubled – up 122% – in one week. There were 1,975 Covid patients in hospitals on Monday, compared with fewer than half that – 889 – the week before.
NHS pressures in the north-east have become so intense that ambulance workers in the area have begun asking patients with suspected heart attacks and strokes to get a lift to hospital with family or friends instead of waiting for an ambulance, amid high staff absences and an “unprecedented” surge in demand, it emerged on Tuesday.
An internal note at North East ambulance service NHS foundation trust said that where there was likely to be a risk from the delay in an ambulance reaching a patient, call handlers should “consider asking the patient to be transported by friends or family”, the Health Service Journal reported.
The second-fastest growth rate in hospital Covid occupancy is in the north-west, which recorded a rise of 94% in the last seven days. It means all parts of northern England have more than double the growth rate experienced in London, which was 46% between 27 December and 3 January.
The number of Covid patients in hospitals in the Midlands has risen 74% in the last seven days, with Covid occupancy up 58% in the south-east, 55% in the east and 43% in the south-west.
Overall, the daily count of confirmed Covid-19 patients in hospital in England has increased by 68% in the last week, according to the analysis. There were 14,210 patients on Monday, compared with 8,474 a week ago. This remains significantly below the 34,336 peak of 18 January 2021.
However, health leaders said in some parts of the NHS, Covid staff absences and the backlog of non-Covid care were having a worse impact this winter than last year, meaning the steep rises in Covid occupancy were still causing major challenges.
The deepening crisis in hospitals was highlighted further on Tuesday when it emerged four more NHS trusts had declaredcritical incidents amid staff absences and soaring demand for care.
The Guardian revealed on Monday that at least six NHS trusts in England had declared such incidents, which are announced when trusts believe they may no longer be able to provide a range of critical services. Declaring an incident enables local health chiefs to call for help from staff and other organisations, and creates a formal interim emergency governance structure to make prioritisation decisions at speed, for example redeploying staff or reprioritising services.
On Tuesday, University hospitals Plymouth NHS trust, Great Western hospitals NHS foundation trust, Blackpool teaching hospitals NHS foundation trust and University hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS foundation trust all confirmed they had also declared critical incidents.
Trish Armstrong-Child, the chief executive of Blackpool teaching hospitals, said an “internal critical incident” was declared due to “operational challenges across the organisation”. These included Blackpool Victoria hospital running at “full capacity”, long waits in A&E, and “high staff sickness absence levels of above 10%”. Outbreaks of Covid in Blackpool had also resulted in more people being admitted to the hospital each day than the number being discharged.
Acknowledging that the north of England could experience even more pressure on hospitals in the coming weeks, Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, the director of public health for Lancashire county council, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the county was at “the foothills” of an Omicron wave.
He said: “Lancashire is beginning to experience what London did at the beginning of last month and, of course, London is better resourced and the infrastructures are well organised compared to other regions, so we are bracing ourselves for a tsunami of Omicron cases in Lancashire.
“But this is all meaning that we are not able to concentrate on the non-Covid issues, that’s really needing to be addressed immediately as well, so it’s a double challenge we face: not only fighting Covid but all the other pent-up demand and need due to non-Covid issues.”