Hospitals 'ordered to switch ops to private sector to prevent winter crisis'
Hospitals have been told to discharge thousands of patients and pass some scheduled surgery to private organisations to reduce pressure ahead of a potential winter crisis, it was reported.
Leaked memos also revealed managers have been banned from declaring black alerts, the highest level when hospital services are unable to cope with demand, the Daily Telegraph said.
The newspaper claimed instructions were sent by NHS England and the regulator NHS Improvement last month to reduce the levels of bed occupancy in hospitals, which are the most crowded they have ever been ahead of winter.
In the three months to the end of September 89.1% of acute and general beds were full, compared with 87% last year, prompting the order for hospital trusts to take the drastic measures.
The goal is to reduce occupancy levels down to the recommended safe limit of 85% from December 19 to January 16, the Telegraph said.
NHS England said anyone needing to be in hospital or other care over Christmas will be.
But Dr Mark Porter, chairman of the British Medical Association, said: "This is evidence of an over-stretched healthcare system that the Government has failed to properly fund, which must outsource patient care to private providers to cope with predictable patient demand.
"Unmanageable pressures are now facing the NHS all year round, winter or not, and this has been made worse by cuts to social care provision.
"It is time for the Government to take the blinkers off and provide sustainable funding and increased staffing to ensure the long-term future of the NHS."
Hospitals have been told to turn to the private sector to "maximise elective activity", with operations such as knee and hip replacements likely to be among the outsourced procedures to help free up beds for urgent patients.
The measures would likely have a significant cost to the NHS, which already has squeezed purse strings.
NHS England said plans to pace elective programmes and hospital discharges are put in place every year to maximise bed availability and reduce the potential for cancelled operations.
A spokeswoman said: "Our ambition to reduce bed occupancy in hospitals over the festive period is about timely discharge and getting people to the most appropriate care setting ahead of the holidays, so there is capacity for early January when we know pressure is greatest.
"This is part of our well-rehearsed winter preparedness every year."
A spokeswoman for both NHS England and NHS Improvement added there was a lack of a historic national protocol for hospitals when declaring alerts, leading to "a hotchpotch of confusing terminology".
She said: This has led to confusion between hospitals, ambulances and the public over what is happening, how to respond or how they can help.
"The new NHS guidelines are for hospitals to use when managing local operational pressures in order to deliver a consistent approach across the country."
Jon Ashworth, Labour's shadow health secretary, said: "This leaked memo shows the desperate state the NHS is now in.
"With winter looming, it's astonishing the Chancellor failed to find an extra penny piece for the NHS or social care this week."