Research into capacity in the NHS indicates that nearly 50% of NHS authorities are planning to cut hospital beds, with one-third intending to close Accident & Emergency departments.
These alarming figures underline the extent of the financial crisis in the NHS system.
Such is the level of difficulty for the healthcare system, even Conservative MPs have urged action to be taken immediately.
Dr Sarah Wollaston, head of the influential Commons health select committee, has urged the Treasury to intervene.
Wollaston believes that vastly increased funding is vital in order to ensure the long-term survival of the health service, and tackle a “severe” crisis in social care.
In addition to the stringent cuts, around one-quarter anticipate job losses in hospitals, with an almost equal number of NHS institutions anticipating the closure of inpatient paediatric departments.
Commenting on the news, a Department of Health spokesman attempted to defend the parlous state of the NHS.
“We know the NHS is under pressure, and to ensure the best standards of care in the future we need an updated system which even better prioritises GP access, cancer care and mental health treatment. The NHS is using sustainability and transformation plans to help deliver this change. No decisions have been made and none will occur without local consultation.”
Hospital beds have already been shaved by one-quarter in the last decade, with 37,000 fewer general and acute beds available than in 2006-07.
Dr Chris Moulton, vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, described the situation as extremely worrying, outlining his belief that such cuts are unsustainable considering the high occupancy levels which are already part of the public record.
“They are desperate to save money but these are truly desperate measures. We already have one of the lowest numbers of beds in the developed world – we need more beds, not fewer of them. We already have occupancy at record levels and it’s too risky to go further. As well as the risks of crowding and of delays on trolleys and ambulances, there are the extra infection risks that come with it”.
Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, concurred with this verdict, and bemoaned the cost-cutting culture which is enveloping the NHS.
“The proposed cuts across many services look alarmingly like cost-savings disguised as service improvements. This is no surprise given the huge pressures on the NHS to save money. We do have real reservations about the speed of these changes. Organisations are being asked to respond with plans for major changes very quickly and I have real concerns that this will lead to service change without meaningful involvement and careful consideration about the impact this could have on service users.”
And Janet Davies, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, pointed to historical precedent, and called on both the government and healthcare bosses to reverse the existing disastrous policy.
“With NHS finances in such a perilous state, there is a real risk that cuts to staffing and services will be made as a short-term budget fix with little regard for the longer-term consequences for patients. Staff, patients and their loved ones can already see that hospitals are working at full stretch, and it is very difficult to see how beds can be cut without having a real impact on care.”
Despite the concerns of healthcare experts, the government will point to the vast deficits accumulated by trusts in the last 12 months as justification for this policy.