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Hunt backs major incident criteria

A new political row has erupted over the NHS over guidelines issued to hospitals as to when they can declare a "major incident".

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham claimed the new "enhanced criteria" - issued to NHS trusts in the West Midlands - effectively made it impossible for hospitals to declare a major incident, raising concerns about patient safety.

But Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the guidance - issued by regional NHS managers - was simply an attempt to get good advice to hospitals as to how they should respond during a "tough" winter.

The row follows a spate of major incidents which are called when patient demand reaches a level that could disrupt hospital services, triggering an alert to community hospitals and other health centres in the area to make extra beds available.

The BBC reported that the 17 new criteria issued in the West Midlands included a requirement for hospitals to check whether community services had been "flexed" to support early patient discharge and whether all available community capacity has been utilised.

In an email exchange quoted by the BBC, a head of operations at one NHS trust said he believed the guidelines were intended to prevent hospital trusts calling any more major incidents.

"This is the enhanced criteria that have been introduced by NHS England to effectively stop trusts from calling a major incident," he wrote.

"Worth sharing with emergency department consultants as our hands will be tied in most cases if they wish to call a major incident for capacity reasons."

An A&E consultant replied: "It strikes me as an attempt to dampen down the heat and media attention on the emergency departments and their major incidents."

In an emergency Commons question, Mr Burnham rejected Mr Hunt's claim that the new guidance was simply a "local operational issue."

He pointed to an NHS England document which, he said, advised that among the issues trusts should consider in deciding whether to declare a major incident were whether there was "political involvement or excessive media coverage" and whether there was "a risk of reputational damage".

"Doesn't this muddy the waters hugely and distract doctors whose sole focus should be on the emergency situation rather than media and political considerations that should form no part of their judgment?" he said.

Mr Hunt, however, dismissed the allegations as part of Labour's policy to "weaponise the NHS" in the run-up to the general election.

"This was an operational decision. It was nothing to do with ministers. This was the local NHS doing its best to get good guidelines out in a tough winter," he said.

"It is absolutely right that a local hospital should talk to the rest of the local NHS to check about the impact of any decision they make on major incidents to make sure that patients are treated safely."

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