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Surge in norovirus cases as senior doctors warn of ‘carnage’ on wards

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The number of people seeking hospital treatment for the winter vomiting bug has risen by almost 70 per cent in just one week.

The NHS figures reveal 1,336 hospital beds have been taken by people suffering from norovirus, a sharp rise from the 790 the previous week.

The surge comes amid warnings from senior doctors of “carnage” in Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments as winter bites.

Latest figures show 25 A&E departments turning away patients in the week just ended, compared with 11 the week before.

Meanwhile the number of ambulances delayed for at least an hour has risen by 27 per cent in a week.

Experts said the spike in cases of norovirus was adding to pressures on beds, with average bed occupancy levels now at 94.6 per cent – far above recommended rates of 85 per cent.

And monthly figures for November show A&E waiting times the worst they have been since February.

Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said hospitals were “imploding” with “carnage on the ground” as cold weather bites.

“When we talk about the NHS at the moment, all we can say and see is pressure, pressure and more pressure – the system is on a knife-edge,” he said.

Norovirus, commonly known as the winter vomiting bug, is highly contagious and can quickly spread through schools and offices.Symptoms can also include a slight fever, headaches, painful stomach cramps and aches and pains.

Doctors advise sufferers to stay at home and get plenty of rest.

The latest figures only cover those admitted to hospital – a small proportion of overall cases, used to track likely levels of infection across the population.

While 69 hospitals have recorded outbreaks so far this winter, overall, lab reports suggest rates remain lower than the five year average for this time of year.

Why is the NHS under so much pressure?

  • An ageing population. There are one million more people over the age of 65 than five years ago. This has caused a surge in demand for medical care
  • Cuts to budgets for social care. While the NHS budget has been protected, social services for home helps and other care have fallen by 11 per cent in five years. This has caused record levels of “bedblocking”; people with no medical need to be in hospital are stuck there because they can’t be supported at home
  • Staff shortages. While hospital doctor and nurse numbers have risen over the last decade, they have not kept pace with the rise in demand. Meanwhile 2016 saw record numbers of GP practices close, displacing patients on to A&E departments as they seek medical advice
  • Lifestyle factors. Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, a poor diet with not enough fruit and vegetables and not doing enough exercise are all major reasons for becoming unwell and needing to rely on our health services. Growing numbers of overweight children show this problem is currently set to continue

Nick Phin, National Infection Service deputy director at Public Health England said: “Norovirus can be unpleasant and is easily passed on to those around you.”

“Most people get over it within a day or two, but in the very young, elderly and those who have weakened immune systems it can last longer.

“It is easy to get dehydrated, so it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to prevent this.

“We advise you should avoid visiting GP surgeries, care homes and hospitals if you have symptoms,” he added.

NHS England said there were 512,962 emergency admissions last month, 4.8 per cent higher than the same month last year.

Of these, 48,339 patients waited more than four hours, with 109 waiting over 12 hours.

The operational standard for A&E waiting times is that 95 per cent of patients should be admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours of arrival at an A&E department. This has not been met since July 2015.

Weekly NHS data showed  2,340 ambulance delays of more than 60 minutes,  in the seven days which ended on Monday – up from 1,840 the previous week.

In total, almost 12,000 patients suffered delays of at least thirty minutes.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the sharp rise in ambulance delays was “shocking”.

“Last week’s cold snap demonstrated once again the crisis facing our NHS this winter and Government inaction will only make the challenge facing the NHS that much harder,” he said.

What is norovirus?

Noroviruses are one of the commonest causes of gastroenteritis. Vomiting and diarrhoea are the most likely symptoms. Others include cramps and mild fever. Symptoms usually emerge 24-48 hours after exposure. The illness typically lasts between one and four days.

How serious is norovirus?

Although troublesome, the illness is not usually serious in medical terms. Elderly people and infants are most likely to become dehydrated and may need treatment to replace lost fluid.

Can norovirus infections be prevented?

There are no specific medicines for prevention. The best approach is a strict regard for food hygiene.

An NHS England spokesman said: “A&E four-hour performance in November is now better than the same time last year, despite an extra 85,000 more patients being successfully treated in under four hours.

“There has also been progress on reducing delayed transfers of care, with more than 1,000 beds freed up compared with last winter.

Janet Davies, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing said: “All this points to overflowing hospitals unable to discharge patients quickly enough.

“The Government shouldn’t shrug today’s figures off as yet more statistics – behind every one is a person waiting too long, often in pain and discomfort.”

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Average general and acute bed occupancy is running close to 95 per cent, well above recommended safe levels.

“We also saw a sharp rise in the number of A & E diverts, and an increase in ambulance handover delays.

“There was also a marked jump in the number of beds closed because of norovirus.”