NHS leaders have warned that stretched A&E departments face “absolute chaos” over the jubilee weekend as bank holiday pressures and low staff numbers combine.
Pressure on emergency departments has risen over recent months, while patients have been hit by huge delays in treatment as well as longer ambulance response times.
Health service bosses fear that an increase in demand during the four-day weekend to mark 70 years since the Queen’s coronation could overwhelm hospitals, with extended pub opening hours also likely to contribute to a surge in A&E visits, while ambulance services are concerned that assaults on staff could rise.
Internal data from the Easter weekend, seen by The Independent, shows a spike in ambulance call-outs. Doctors say that resources have been stretched even further since then, and this weekend could be even worse.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS confederation, which represents NHS trusts, told The Independent that bank holidays are always a “challenging time”, when staff shortages combine with “public activity where people can be drinking too much”.
“That happens against the backdrop of 100,000 plus vacancies … which makes it even more challenging,” he added.
Dr Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said that bank holidays usually result in increased pressure on services, as there are fewer options for alternative care, which affects “already stretched” emergency services and “exacerbates” what is already a serious situation.
He said: “There is certainly concern going into the extended bank holiday period, but that is largely because pressures are – and have been for some time – at unsustainable levels, so there is no give in the system.
“We do know lengthy bank holidays usually cause an increase in pressure on the front line of the NHS, as over the period there will be fewer options for alternative and routine care, and this presents problems, with urgent and acute services already so stretched.
“Despite the best efforts of clinical staff, morale is extremely low as these efforts are not yielding the desired results, and the distraction of the jubilee celebrations must not detract from the fact there is an emergency in the NHS.”
Meanwhile, internal data seen by The Independent shows that more than 4,000 people waited at least three times longer than the four-hour target on Good Friday, and almost 3,000 on Easter Monday. The number waiting more than 12 hours spiked just after Easter Monday.
The number of ambulances attending A&E was also up on Good Friday and Easter Monday – to just over 12,500 from around 11,500 – while the number of patients waiting to be discharged from hospital rose from around 18,000 during the bank holiday to 19,500 in the days after.
Trusts across the country have already advised patients to “consider their options” before attending A&E, warning of long waits this weekend.
A senior NHS medic said emergency departments were already experiencing a “bad time” and that the four-day weekend would add to that pressure.
“Throwing in some kids’ minor injuries, some people going out to the pub … put the two magic ingredients together and you’ve got absolute chaos,” he said, adding that the forthcoming holiday period was “very bad news for the NHS, [with] extra arrivals on a summer night and a riotous bank holiday weekend. Really it doesn’t take much predicting how bad it’s going to be.”
Martin Flaherty, managing director of the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives, said a possible increase in staff assaults was also a concern, after the North East Ambulance Service reported that increased drinking during previous bank holidays had led to more attacks on its workers.
“From experience, we know that bank holiday events where alcohol is prevalent can sometimes lead to an increased risk of violence, assault and aggression towards ambulance staff from a very small minority of people, which is completely unacceptable,” he said.
He added that figures show that around 32 ambulance staff are abused or attacked every day, and he urged people to have respect for workers “who are trying to help you, your friends and your families over the holiday period”.
Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, warned that an even bigger problem could come in the days after the bank holiday weekend, when hospitals may struggle to discharge patients as staff take holidays.
Dr Boyle said June was usually a good time for the service to cope with admissions, however, as April’s A&E performance was the worst on record, there was a “significant risk” attached to this bank holiday.
An NHS spokesperson said: “While families and friends up and down the country take part in jubilee celebrations, we want to reassure you that, despite various pressures, staff are working hard to ensure NHS care remains available for everyone.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.
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