Health secretary Jeremy Hunt visited Worthing Hospital this morning to talk about the extraordinary winter pressures on the NHS.
Mr Hunt reportedly praised staff who have kept patients safe amid unprecedented demand at Worthing, Southlands in Shoreham and St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester.
(An Observer reporter asked to interview Mr Hunt after he met staff but was told by a Department of Health representative he was too busy).
Worthing and St Richard’s saw a 15 per cent increase in numbers through A&E in December from two years ago.
Combined with a huge shortage in hospital staff and a flu epidemic, it created a ‘perfect storm’ which put ‘every part of the system under enormous pressure’, Marianne Griffiths, the hospitals trust cheif executive said.
Speaking at a Western Sussex Hospitals Trust board meeting afterwards, Mrs Griffiths said: “This has been my tenth year and it’s been the worst winter we’ve ever experienced.
“There are three reasons for that. One is the increase in demand, in terms of our over 85s it’s been extraordinary growth.
“For January for example it’s up 20 per cent.
“(Two) we genuinely do not have enough staff, so when we escalate and have beds up everywhere as we need to...that’s been really difficult.
“The third thing is the flu epidemic. There’s been flu in Eastbourne, it’s hopped over to Brighton, has hit Worthing and hopped over to St Richard’s, which of course affects staff too.
“So all of that has coalesced into this perfect storm.
“But I believe we’ve kept our patients safe because our staff have constantly gone, not just the extra mile, but 100 miles extra.
“I think our staff are extraordinary, and we did say this to the Secretary of State this morning.”
The trust’s A&E waiting figures for the number of patients seen, treated and discharged within four hours in December dropped to 85.4 per cent, with similar figures in January, Mrs Griffiths said, against national targets of 95 per cent.
That was slightly up on national figures of 85.07 per cent as hospitals up and down the country struggled over Christmas.
Mrs Griffiths said occupancy rates across the hospitals were at 99 per cent on some days which ‘is not sustainable’.
This was particularly bad when flu was rife at the end of December and some bays had to be shut to isolate people or to deep clean for infection control, she said.
Similar problems felt away from the hospital saw around 50 fewer community beds available, meaning patients ready for discharge remained in hospital, adding to high capacity.
A large number of non-emergency procedures had to be cancelled but Mrs Griffiths said, from this week, the trust was back to a full schedule of elective work, though it would ‘take some time to fully catch up’.
Mrs Griffiths added: “We should be enormously proud, and whilst we haven’t hit our A&E target, I think we should be on our knees thanking staff for everything they’ve done.”
Medical director George Findlay echoed the praise to all staff, calling demands ‘unprecedented’ and ‘relentlessly busy’.
He said: “Over the festive fortnight we saw 5,600 patients, admitted and cared for 2,200 people, a significant increase from two years ago.
“That’s really stressed the system and capacity.
“We have opened more capacity than ever, which has had an unfortunate impact on elective care, but reduced the number of procedures cancelled on the day.
“All our teams, from A&E through to ITU teams, everybody has been working above and beyond for our patients’ safety and I really think it’s worthwhile recognising that and thanking them.”
A recruitment drive to address the staff shortage, both locally and internationally, has seen 86 nurses from the Philippines offered jobs, subject to passing an English language test.
In October the trust had a registered nurse vacancy of 228.
Across Worthing, Chichester and Southlands hospital in Shoreham, 1,100 new elective beds are replacing the ‘very old bed stock’.