Send patients to private sector to avert winter crisis, hospitals told

Hospitals have been told to discharge thousands of patients and pass some scheduled surgery to private organisations to reduce pressure ahead of a potential winter crisis, it was reported.

Leaked memos also revealed that managers have been banned from declaring black alerts, the highest level, when hospital services are unable to cope with demand, the Daily Telegraph said.

The newspaper claimed instructions were sent by NHS England and the regulator NHS Improvement last month to reduce the levels of bed occupancy in hospitals, which are the most crowded they have ever been ahead of winter.

In the three months to the end of September, 89.1% of acute and general beds were full, compared with 87% last year, prompting the order for hospital trusts to take the drastic measures.

The goal is to reduce occupancy levels down to the recommended safe limit of 85% from December 19 to January 16, the Telegraph said.

Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the British Medical Association, said: “This is evidence of an over-stretched healthcare system that the government has failed to properly fund, which must outsource patient care to private providers to cope with predictable patient demand.”

Hospitals have been told to turn to the private sector to “maximise elective activity”, with operations such as knee and hip replacements likely to be among the outsourced procedures to help free up beds for urgent patients.

The measures are likely to have a significant cost to the NHS.

NHS England said plans to pace elective programmes and hospital discharges are put in place every year to maximise bed availability and reduce the possibility of cancelled operations.

A spokeswoman said: “Our ambition to reduce bed occupancy in hospitals over the festive period is about timely discharge and getting people to the most appropriate care setting ahead of the holidays, so there is capacity for early January when we know pressure is greatest.

“This is part of our well-rehearsed winter preparedness every year.”

A spokeswoman for both NHS England and NHS Improvement added there was a lack of a historic national protocol for hospitals when declaring alerts, leading to “a hotchpotch of confusing terminology”.

She said: “This has led to confusion between hospitals, ambulances and the public over what is happening, how to respond or how they can help.

“The new NHS guidelines are for hospitals to use when managing local operational pressures in order to deliver a consistent approach across the country.”