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12 January 2017

Cold Weather to Exacerbate Demand on NHS Hospitals amid Crisis

Last week, the British Red Cross described the current state of the NHS as a “humanitarian crisis”. Whilst analysts debate whether the main factor behind the under-supply of staff and equipment is rooted in government cuts, over-zealous bureaucracy, an ageing population, or something else entirely, it’s at least generally agreed that the present spike in demand is being caused by the winter cold. As patients flood into waiting rooms suffering an array of illnesses, hospitals are reportedly already unable to cope. Nonetheless, things are expected to get even worse as January turns into February.

The turmoil in which NHS hospitals currently find themselves has been widely reported over the past few days. Today, it emerged that 20 hospitals in England have issued ‘black alerts’ – the highest level – due to overcrowding. On Tuesday, the BBC reported information which stated there are currently 20% more patients in NHS hospital waiting rooms compared to this time last year, with 18,000 people (that same proportion) waiting on trolleys for over four hours last week. Figures from 131 hospital trusts in England show that 485 people waited longer than 12 hours on trolleys between 2 and 9 January 2017, whilst only 158 saw that kind of wait in the whole of January last year. Moreover, it claimed that over half of trusts surveyed failed to reach the target of seeing 80% of their patients each day. It seems there’s a recurring 20% discrepancy.

The early months of the year don’t always cause turmoil in hospitals; but they are always busier, thanks to the cold. People tend to suffer other illnesses, such as cold and flu, during winter time. The strain on hospitals from such illnesses is exacerbated if patients can’t book an appointment with a general practitioner. What’s more, more serious illnesses like pneumonia become more frequent, especially amongst the elderly, when temperatures drop. However, whilst an ageing population is likely to be a factor in causing the present instability, it’s probably not the main one.

As the days get darker and, indeed, colder, people tend to suffer more from mental health problems like depression, stress and anxiety. Indeed, mental health consultations are amongst those which hospitals are currently finding most overwhelming.   

Perhaps counter-intuitively, however, road accidents aren’t a major cause of concern during winter. Research indicates that the most dangerous time of the year to drive is actually August. In August 2008, for example, there were 30% more fatal crashes than there were in January in the US: mainly because people tend to drive more recklessly during summer.

There are clearly many spanners in the works of the NHS; but whatever they are, cold weather shouldn’t be considered one of them. It certainly does prompt higher demand during winter – but it’s also entirely predictable. Whatever the core problems do turn out to be, it’s clear they need to be ironed-out soon: otherwise it will be continue to be hospital patients and over-worked staff who continue to pay the price. 

James Stannard

James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London.