The crisis that the National Health Service faced in the 2017/2018 winter was one of the worst in its history. England’s newsfeeds were full of examples of how the nation’s healthcare system was unable to meet demand.
The emergency reached its peak during the first week of January 2017 – annually the busiest week of the year for the NHS.
One of the key issues NHS England faced was its inability to find beds for its patients resulting in ill people being left in corridors on trollies with no privacy.
During the first quarter of 2017 72% of hospital trusts broke the key 85% bed occupancy guideline.
The 85% bed occupancy guideline is in place to guarantee the safety of patients by reducing the chance of an infection spreading and to have reserves for emergencies.
Over time the issue of how many beds are occupied is getting worse. Especially in the busy first quarter. During the Winter of 2016/17, the NHS faced similar occupancy levels as in the previous winter, even though it wasn’t as widely regarded as a crisis by the media at the time.
However, the actual number of beds available has declined each year for the past four years, meaning even if the occupancy percentages are staying reasonably stable, materially the NHS has lost almost 10,000 overnight beds.
The number of beds available in the last quarter of 2017 has decreased by 663 from the same period in 2016.
The statistics also reveal regional differences when broken down into the four commissioning regions – North, Midlands, South and London – different regions fare better than others when it comes to having available beds.
For the past four years, the NHS Northern Commissioning Region for the NHS regularly stayed below the 85% bed occupancy guideline and only went above it during the first quarter.
But London never met the guideline and during the first quarter and, it was the only region to go above 90% occupancy.
Two of the reasons the NHS is struggling to meet demand is, firstly, the NHS is struggling to find beds for all its patients is because of the squeeze on its budget.
Since the Conservatives took power in 2010 the NHS budget has been cut to a 1% after inflation budget increase every year, down from the 4% annual increase the health service saw throughout the previous decade.
Secondly, the population of England is getting older. Over the past four years, the number of people living in the U.K over the age of 65 has increased by almost a million.
In 2017 the percentage of the population over 65 was 18.2%, and this figure is increasing by an average of 0.21% each year.
The data shows that the crisis the health service suffered previous two winters were not one-offs, rather the situation has been building up for years.
In order to prevent the NHS from almost collapsing during the winter, serious structural changes are needed for Britain’s healthcare system.