Nightmare before Christmas as hospital pressures soar
A spike in very unwell patients has put indescribable pressure on St George’s, Epsom, and St Helier’s emergency departments – and with Christmas and doctors’ strikes on the way, demand could snowball further this winter.
Senior clinicians are warning of severe disruption to NHS services over the coming weeks – and are calling on members of the public to help by going to NHS 111 online when their healthcare need is less urgent.
Some people may think that going to an emergency department – even when it is not an emergency – means they will be seen more quickly. This, however, is not the case.
In reality, because of the high number of severely unwell patients requiring urgent intervention, waiting times to be seen for less severely unwell patients will be significantly longer than usual. Other settings of care will be quicker and easier to access than the hospital ED.’
More than 560 people with winter-related illnesses, many of whom were very unwell, came to the hospital Group’s three emergency departments between 4 and 10 December – about 10% of all attendances. Hand-washing is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of bugs like norovirus, and vaccines are good protection against flu and Covid.
Dr Rebecca Suckling, Site Chief Medical Officer at Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “Winter has arrived. Our hospitals are under extraordinary pressure, not just because of the numbers coming to our emergency departments, but the sheer volume of very sick people we are seeing.
“We are here for people when they genuinely need us. But on behalf of the nurses, doctors, and everyone else working so hard in our hospitals, I would urge people who are unwell over the Christmas period to consider whether our emergency departments are the best place to come.
Dr Luci Etheridge, Site Chief Medical Officer at St George’s Hospital, said: “With further strike action on the way, and Christmas just around the corner, we face a very challenging few weeks. And following a record-breaking summer, it barely feels like we’ve come up for air.
“The best Christmas present the public could give our hardworking staff this year is using NHS services wisely and going to NHS 111 online when their health need is less urgent – helping us to prioritise the very poorly people who are coming through our doors.”
Last month, 219 people going to St George’s, Epsom and St Helier emergency departments were redirected to other services more appropriate for their healthcare need, including GP surgeries, pharmacies, and urgent treatment centres.
When someone has an urgent healthcare need that isn’t an emergency, NHS 111 online – a 24/7 service – should be the first port of call, as this can direct where to go. Pharmacists are highly skilled and can provide advice on minor health concerns from skin rashes to earaches and flu. Many local pharmacies stay open late, and no appointment is needed. Some will be open over Christmas.
During strikes, people should continue to attend GP appointments, unless contacted and told otherwise. When it’s an emergency or life-threatening, people should always ring 999 or go to an emergency department.
People can also take steps to stay safe and well this winter, including getting vaccinated for flu and Covid through their local NHS vaccination service and washing hands regularly with soap and water to stop the spread of illnesses.
With many people more vulnerable to colder weather – including those aged 65 and over, babies and young children, and those with long-term conditions – take the time to look in on vulnerable family, friends, and neighbours.
A lot of older and vulnerable people have been affected by winter illnesses – and as they often need to spend longer in hospital, additional demand has been placed on NHS services.
People who use medication should ensure they collect prescriptions well in advance of the bank holidays.
Notes to editors:
Junior doctors strikes take place from 7am on Wednesday 20 December to 7am on Friday 23 December, and from 7am on Wednesday 3 January to 7am on Tuesday 9 January.