This winter there was widespread alarm that the NHS’s policy of constantly cutting beds had gone too far, with A&E units full of patients on trolleys and people being looked after by paramedics in ambulances. Bed occupancy ran at 95% for much of December, January and February – far above the 85% “safe” level – as flu, cold weather and breathing problems led to unprecedented numbers of patients being admitted as medical emergencies.
At the last count in September 82 “ghost wards” were recorded containing 1,429 empty beds, the equivalent of two entire hospitals, according to data provided by hospital trusts across England. It represents a sharp increase on the 32 wards and 502 beds that were unused four years earlier, statistics obtained under freedom of information laws show.
The closures, often a result of hospitals not having enough staff or the money to keep wards open, have occurred at a time when the health service is under unprecedented pressure and struggling to cope with demand for beds.
Doctors’ leaders reacted with disbelief to the revelation.
“Given the pressures on the whole system, which suggest the NHS is 5,000 beds short of what it needed this winter, this situation is amazing and is almost always caused by not having enough money or staff,” said Dr Nick Scriven, the president of the Society for Acute Medicine. Chronic shortages of nurses and doctors and the NHS budget squeeze are forcing hospitals to shut beds, Scriven said. “These findings will not surprise any clinical staff in the NHS. It reflects issues around staffing hospitals safely – in any equation the biggest cost is staff. In years and years of trying to balance books and achieve ‘efficiency’ savings, many hospitals will have taken the opportunities to shut clinical areas if they at all can.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of council at the British Medical Association, said: “At a time when patients are facing unacceptably long waits to be seen and the indignity of being treated in hospital corridors, it is illogical for hospitals to have extra beds available but also unavailable, because they have been taken out of use. It is vital to look at why these aren’t being used when the NHS is under such pressure.”
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said: “Funding and staffing constraints mean it isn’t always possible to keep beds open. This is far from ideal given the NHS has at times been operating at full capacity, with some patients left waiting longer than they should for treatment given the lack of available beds.”