Overnight bed occupancy rates in NHS hospitals between January and March were the worst ever recorded, new figures show.
Bed occupancy levels reached 92.6% in the first three months of the year, exceeding the recommended 85% to maintain patient safety standards.
It represented an increase on the same period last year, when overnight bed occupancy rates in general and acute hospital wards were 91.4%.
Ian Eardley, vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said bed occupancy rates of more than 85% can lead to increased infections and make it more difficult for hospitals to contain flu outbreaks or vomiting bugs.
These figures are very worrying but they will come as no surprise to frontline staffIan Eardley
During the same period, a total of 25,475 operations were cancelled – the highest number of last minute cancelled operations since quarterly records began in 1994.
Mr Eardley, a consultant urologist, said: “These figures are very worrying but they will come as no surprise to frontline staff who struggled to provide care for their patients because of increasing demands and a shortage of hospital beds this winter.
“We know that if hospitals routinely exceed bed occupancy rates of over 85%, it can lead to increased infections rates for patients and make it more difficult for hospitals to contain flu outbreaks or vomiting bugs.
“An exceptionally high number of operations were also cancelled at the last minute between January and March this year.
“It goes without saying that cancelling a patient’s operation at the last moment is very distressing for them and their family and it can cause an individual’s condition to deteriorate.
“The fact remains that none of what the NHS experienced this year was new.
“The Government’s forthcoming 10-year plan for the NHS must include a commitment to increasing bed capacity and transforming the way we provide care for older patients, so they can be treated closer to their homes.”
Labour’s Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Yet again this is more damning evidence of a Tory-made crisis in the NHS.
“Government ministers should be ashamed that years of cuts to beds, cuts to social care and austerity have led to the worst bed occupancy rates on record.
“Bed occupancy rates above 85% pose a significant risk to patient safety and the downturn compared with last year should be a cause of serious concern.
“The NHS is on the brink and needs a long-term investment plan. Only Labour will give the NHS the extra resources to ensure we have the quality of care patients deserve.”