A report authored by senior medics indicates that the NHS requires another 5,000 beds in order to achieve safe occupancy levels.
Without this investment it will be impossible for the publicly-funded healthcare service to hit the critical four-hour waiting time targets, according to the Royal College of Emergency Medicine.
The ‘Winter Flow’ project of this authoritative organisation indicated that the NHS required a serious increase in available beds in order to “combat exit block, overcrowding in emergency departments [and to] maintain flow through the system”.
Having tracked the performance of 50 trusts running 60 sites across the UK over a six-month basis, the Royal College discovered that some trusts four-hour performance slumped below the 50% mark.
The target for this performance metric is 95%, indicating the vast disparity in performance and expectation.
Trusts from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were included in the reporting process.
The suggested increase is based on an aim of achieving bed occupancy rates of 85%, and the Royal College asserts that this is required in order to run hospitals safely, even though NHS England does not endorse this figure with a benchmark.
Just last week, ministers attempted to release hospital beds by cutting social care related delayed discharges, which was intended to produce a further 2,500 free beds.
However, official figures indicate that the total NHS bed-base declined from 142,319 in the last quarter of 2010 to 131,060 in the same period in 2016-17.
Commenting on the issue, RCEM vice president Chris Moulton suggested that the views of the college represent a fairly moderate position.
“We are not asking for bed ratios to be raised to meet European countries, like Germany and France. It would be a modest increase, but it would significantly help flow and reduce healthcare acquired infections. As well as raising numbers we also need to address staffing at all levels, [and] improve access to community and social care.”
This is not the first time that concerns about the level of occupancy in the NHS have been raised.
Indeed, the authoritative Nuffield Trust previously expressed its concern over occupancy levels back in December.
Its report stated at the time that “on average, over 95 per cent of beds across English hospitals were occupied every day last winter, despite evidence that once bed occupancy exceeds 85 to 90 per cent, there is increasing risk of infection.”
Responding to criticism, an NHS England spokesman suggested that recent data demonstrated improvement in this area.
“The most recent figures – for January to March 2017 – show that NHS hospitals actually had 582 more general and acute beds open than a year ago. So it is misleading to claim that A&E performance is somehow affected by closures of other types of hospital bed, for example old and outmoded learning disabilities beds which are deliberately being replaced following the Winterbourne View scandal.”