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Flu patient numbers highest this winter as hospitals hit by discharge delays

Delays in discharging patients have jumped sharply since the start of January (Jeff Moore/PA)
Delays in discharging patients have jumped sharply since the start of January (Jeff Moore/PA)

The number of flu patients in England has climbed to its highest level so far this winter, with more than 1,500 people in hospital last week with the virus.

The rise in infections comes as NHS staff are facing a growing struggle to clear beds of patients who are medically fit to leave, with health chiefs warning wards are “almost full to the brim”.

Delays in discharging patients, for reasons including a shortage of space in care homes, have jumped sharply since the start of January, piling further pressure on hospitals already dealing with the impact of winter viruses.

HEALTH Flu
(PA Graphics)

An average of 1,582 people were in hospital each day last week with flu, including 65 in critical care beds, according to NHS England.

The total is up 12% from 1,416 in the week to January 14 and is just above the previous peak of 1,548 a fortnight earlier.

Levels remain below those reached last year, which saw more than 5,000 people in hospital with the virus as the UK suffered its worst flu outbreak for a decade.

The NHS is also continuing to deal with hundreds of cases of norovirus, with an average of 438 adult hospital beds filled last week by people with diarrhoea and vomiting or norovirus-like symptoms.

This is down 3% week-on-week from 452 beds, but is higher than at this point both last year and in 2022.

HEALTH Flu
(PA Graphics)

The number of patients testing positive for Covid-19 has dropped slightly, with an average of 3,888 each day in the week to January 21, down from the previous week’s total of 3,946 and the second weekly fall in a row.

The impact on the health service of winter viruses is reflected in the number of delayed discharges of patients who are medically fit to leave, which has jumped sharply since the start of January.

An average of 14,436 hospital beds per day last week were occupied by people ready to be discharged, up from 13,637 in the previous week and 12,459 a fortnight earlier.

The figure is the highest weekly average so far this winter and also the highest since comparable records began in April 2021.

HEALTH Flu
(PA Graphics)

Delays in discharging patients are due to a range of factors, the most common being a lack of beds in other settings, such as care homes or community hospitals.

Disagreements between a patient or their family and medical staff, hold-ups in sorting transport and medicines, plus the need to install specialist equipment in a person’s home, are among other reasons for delays.

Some 42% of patients ready to leave hospital last week were actually discharged each day.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive for NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts in England, said the latest figures showed health services are being “stretched to the limit week after week with no let-up”.

She added: “Demand for care keeps growing, especially as very cold weather and winter bugs and illnesses such as flu have affected lots of people – including NHS staff.

“NHS trusts are working flat out with wards almost full to the brim.

“Thanks to trusts’ hard work there are now 5,000 more core beds, but the high level of occupancy shows we need even more investment – not just in hospitals but in mental health, community and ambulance services too, to have enough people and resources to give patients first-class care.”

“The impact of nine days of strikes by junior doctors before Christmas and in early January is still being felt. Seventy days of industrial action across the NHS since December 2022 have added to the strain on the whole system and patients having to wait even longer for the care they need is a huge concern.”

HEALTH Flu
(PA Graphics)

The latest NHS performance figures also show that nearly a third (32%) of hospital patients in England arriving by ambulance last week had to wait more than half an hour to be handed over to A&E teams.

This is up from just over a quarter (26%) the previous week and is well above the equivalent figure for this point last year (20%).

Some 14% of patients had to wait more than an hour to be handed over, up from 9% the previous week and 7% at this stage in 2023.

Rory Deighton, acute network director at the NHS Confederation, the membership organisation for the healthcare system, said the NHS was “under severe strain from the front to the back door”, highlighting the “critical problems” from ambulance handovers to delayed discharges.

He continued: “This is not only bad for patients but frustrating for staff at all levels who want to provide the best care possible.

“The cumulative impact of workforce shortages, the crisis in social care funding, and capital underinvestment has sadly normalised standards of care that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

“Despite the combined pressures caused by winter viruses and industrial action, staff have continued to go above and beyond to stop services buckling under pressure.

“The fact that these beds seem to fill up as soon as they are opened shows just how needed they are.”

HEALTH Flu
(PA Graphics)

Separate data published on Thursday by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows the rate of hospital admissions for flu stood at 5.4 per 100,000 people in the week to January 21, up week-on-week from 4.1.

Rates are highest among people aged 85 and over, at 28.4 per 100,000, followed by 75 to 84-year-olds (15.6) and children aged four and under (12.9).

Dr Mary Ramsay, UKHSA director of public health programmes, confirmed the latest data shows “flu is on the rise”, but added that free vaccines for flu are available up to the end of March for those who are eligible.

“Children aged two or three years can receive a quick and painless nasal spray flu vaccine from their GP,” she continued.

“There is less than a week to go before the window to book your Covid-19 vaccine closes on January 31.

“We’re urging all eligible people who have not yet done so to come forward so that they do not miss out on being protected against serious illness.”