NHS bed stocks reaching 'unsustainably' low levels as norovirus infections escalate

Almost 75,000 NHS beds in England have been closed due to norovirus over the course of the winter, new analysis of NHS figures suggest
Norovirus shuts wards

Almost 75,000 NHS beds in England have been closed due to norovirus over the course of the winter, new analysis of NHS figures suggest

  • 5,722 – average number of beds closed each week this winter
  • Handwashing and staying away from work if infected are essential to contain virus
  • Emergency departments fail to meet 98% waiting time target
Norovirus shuts wards
Picture: Alamy

NHS England Winter Daily Situation Reports figures for 2017-18 show that on just one day 1,200 beds had been taken out of service as the infection took its toll on the nation's hospitals.

Analysis by the RCN concludes that the average number of beds closed each week this winter was 5,722 – which is 32% higher than the average of the previous four winters.

Controlling the spread of infection

The college said it is important for hospital visitors to help control the spread of infection through handwashing and for nurses affected by the virus to avoid returning to work until they are symptom-free for two days.

This winter has seen the highest number of beds closed because of suspected norovirus or diarrhoea and vomiting for five years, the RCN said.

It calculated that the number of beds closed from the start of December to the end of February cumulatively stood at 74,390.

Bed stocks at low levels

Norovirus is a highly contagious infection which produces symptoms of vomiting and diarrhoea.

The RCN is urging people admitted to hospital to inform staff when they arrive if they, or people they live with, have been experiencing symptoms to help stem the spread of infection.

RCN general secretary Janet Davies said: 'Nursing staff work extremely hard to prevent the norovirus infection spreading.

'But with so many beds being lost to the illness this winter, bed stocks are reaching unsustainably low levels.

'When the health service is under the extra pressure of winter, the loss of even a few hundred beds a day can have severe consequences for hospitals.'

Staff should not report for duty if infected

RCN professional lead for infection prevention and control Rose Gallagher said it was important for hospital visitors to wash their hands with soap and water to break the cycle of infection, noting that hand santisers alone do not provide effective protection against norovirus.

She added: 'It’s important to note that not just patients but also nursing staff often fall victim to norovirus outbreaks – which then exacerbates existing staffing problems, as affected staff shouldn’t report for duty until they’ve been symptom-free for 48 hours. If they return to work too early, staff risk unknowingly passing on the illness, as they remain infectious.'

The RCN examined the number of beds reported lost because of norovirus as well as diarrhoea and vomiting-type symptoms each week this winter, and compared these weekly totals with those from the previous four winters. 

Waiting time performance hits lowest level

NHS England figures show that waiting time performance in emergency departments (EDs) hit its lowest level since the 98% target was introduced in 2004.

Last week, as much of the country was gripped by a big freeze, just 85% of patients were admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours of arrival in EDs, as per the target.

The previous worst figure was recorded in December (85.1%) equalling January 2018's record low and the worst result since the target was implemented.

NHS England said staff had been faced with working in a 'perfect storm' of appalling weather, persistently high hospital admissions due to flu, and a renewed spike in norovirus.

NHS England Winter Daily Situation Reports

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