The Health Secretary has apologised to patients whose operations could be cancelled as the NHS in England struggles to cope with mounting winter pressures.
Jeremy Hunt said that “it is absolutely not what I want”, after it emerged that tens of thousands of planned operations could be delayed for at least a month as the NHS deals with the most urgent cases.
Prime Minister Theresa May recognised it was disappointing and frustrating for affected patients but said the health service is better prepared “than ever before”.
The remarks come as Press Association analysis shows that at least 16 NHS trusts with accident and emergency departments around England have been put on the highest level of alert due to sustained pressure.
A poll of more than 100 trusts has found that at least 16 had declared the most severe level of “operational pressure” – Operational Pressures Escalation Level 4 (OPEL4) – for at least an hour in their A&E department over the last week.
NHS England documents state that declaring OPEL 4 means that pressure is so great in the system, the organisation is “unable to deliver comprehensive care”.
It adds that when a trust reaches this level of pressure “there is increased potential for patient care and safety to be compromised”.
Of the 58 trusts that responded to questions from the Press Association, 16 trusts with A&E departments confirmed they had reached this level of alert, 42 said they had not declared OPEL4 and many more are yet to respond.
University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust declared OPEL4 on December 28 and is yet to downgrade.
The figures come after hospitals across the country have been told that they can defer planned operations and routine outpatient appointments until the end of the month due to severe winter pressures.
In a drastic step to try to free up hospital staff and beds, NHS England also said the deferral of non-urgent inpatient elective care should be extended until January 31.
When probed on the issue, Mr Hunt told Sky News: “It is absolutely not what I want.”
He added: “There are real pressures, no question about it. This is the busiest week of the year for the NHS.
“What is different this year compared to last year is that (last year) we had a lot of operations cancelled at the last minute, a lot of people were called up the day before their operation and told, ‘I’m sorry, it can’t go ahead’.
“And we recognise that it is better, if you are unfortunately going to have to cancel or postpone some operations, to do it in a planned way, and that’s why this year this independent panel has decided to take this decision.
“And that, I think, in the end, is better for people.
“Although if you are someone whose operation has been delayed I don’t belittle that for one moment, and indeed I apologise to everyone who that has happened to.”
On a visit in Wokingham, Mrs May pledged operations would be rescheduled “as soon as possible”.
She said: “The NHS has been better prepared for this winter than ever before, we have put extra funding in.
“There are more beds available across the system, we’ve reduced the number of delayed discharges of elderly people who would otherwise have been in NHS beds rather than in social care.
“But I recognise for those people that have had their operations postponed this is disappointing, it’s frustrating.
“We will ensure that those operations are put back as soon as possible and once again I say that NHS staff are doing a fantastic job.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Yet again Theresa May reveals how entirely out of touch she is.
“She will next be trying to lecture patients that ‘nothing has changed’ for patients.
“The reality is we see hospitals at full capacity, ambulances backed up, cancelled operations and patients waiting for hours on trolleys.
“Instead of burying her head in the sand, Theresa May needs to explain why she has allowed underfunding and cuts to health and social care to continue.”
NHS England has estimated the measures could lead to up to 55,000 deferred operations, although cancer operations and time-critical procedures should go ahead as planned.
The health body is expected to publish its weekly operational statistics on Thursday.
The data, which will include figures from the festive period, will show the true extent of the situation in English hospitals.
Anecdotal evidence from patients online paints a picture of long waiting times, ambulances queuing up outside emergency departments, patients being treated in corridors and hospitals almost full to the brim.
An NHS England spokesman said: “Hospitals are under significant pressure over the winter period and are reporting high levels of respiratory illness, increasing flu prevalence and a rise in the severity of illness among patients arriving at A&Es.
“The NHS’s National Emergency Pressures Panel – led by senior clinicians – has acted promptly, at what is the busiest time of year, to help hospitals free up beds and staff to be able to care for the sickest patients.”
Mr Hunt said a 10-year funding plan for the NHS is “exactly what I think we do need going forward”.
In an interview with Channel 4 News, he added: “We’re in the middle of a five-year programme of reform being led by Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, and I think as we come to the end of that programme we do need to look forward and I would argue that we should look forward not just five years but I do think we do need to look forward longer than that because it takes seven years to train a doctor.”
Mr Hunt added: “The only long-term solution is to have the numbers of doctors and nurses that we need.”
He asked NHS staff to “bear with us” as extra doctors and nurses are trained.