Swine flu: NHS hospitals ‘gridlocked’
Britain is never ready for winter
The NHS is in “gridlock”, with hospitals across the country being forced to declare that they have reached the highest level of emergency because of flu and other winter viruses.
Britain’s most senior accident and emergency doctor told The Sunday Telegraph that four weeks of intense pressures had left casualty departments “overwhelmed” with patients. He said desperately sick people had been left for hours waiting on trolleys, with even those requiring intensive care enduring long delays.
Dozens of NHS units have cancelled surgery and clinics for outpatients. At least 10 major centres issued “black alerts” — the highest emergency warning — meaning they were at breaking point, forcing patients to be sent elsewhere.
Scores of hospital wards closed due to norovirus, the winter vomiting bug, which put more than 1,200 beds out of use in one week as nurses attempted to isolate the disease.
Hospitals in Cambridge and Norfolk were on “black alert” for more than two weeks. In the past 10 days, major hospitals in London, Liverpool, Surrey, Southampton, Peterborough, Derby, King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth issued the same warning.
While many hospitals did not schedule non-emergency surgery during the Christmas and New Year period, in the past week dozens cancelled thousands of planned operations. Routine surgery was stopped at hospitals in Leicester, Sheffield, Macclesfield, Middlesbrough, Northallerton, Durham, Darlington, Bassetlaw, Belfast, Portsmouth, south Wales and many parts of London.
Last night it was disclosed that two boys, aged two and 10 months, had died from swine flu in Northern Ireland.
John Heyworth, the president of the College of Emergency Medicine, said: “We have seen A&Es absolutely overwhelmed, with people queuing on trolleys and long delays even for those being admitted to intensive care. The hospitals are gridlocked.”
He expressed anger about the failure of Government and the NHS to develop sufficient contingency plans, given that a flu outbreak was widely anticipated following the swine flu pandemic in 2009. “My frustration is that so much of this is predictable. This did not come out of the blue and yet the planning is inadequate — as though there is a sense of denial about it. The planning this winter has been far less effective than last year.”
Mr Heyworth claimed that casualty units had been hit by a “dramatic surge” in demand not just because of an increase in the number of very sick patients suffering flu complications, but also because less serious cases went to A&E because they could not see a GP at evenings or weekends. “In many parts of the country out-of-hours services are absolutely inadequate, so what we get is people turning up at A&E simply because they do not know where else to go, or else they delay and only seek help when their condition is serious,” said Mr Heyworth. It is not good enough. We are failing the public.”
Across the country, hospitals were struggling to cope. Southampton General Hospital spent more than three weeks on “black alert”, closing 10 wards as norovirus swept through the centre. It was forced to stop all non-emergency surgery and cancel most appointments for outpatients during the period. The crisis warning was finally lifted on Thursday.
Because of the same bug, four wards were closed at Royal Cornwall Hospital last week and cancer and surgery wards in Poole, Dorset, were closed to new admissions. Three wards were closed at West Suffolk hospital.
On Thursday, it was disclosed that the number of deaths from flu had almost doubled, with 110 deaths this winter. Hospitals were already struggling to cope with an increased number of elderly patients needing surgery following falls during the big freeze when they were hit by rising influenza admissions and cases of norovirus.
The latest figures for England showed that in the week ending last Sunday, 23 casualty units were filled to capacity, forcing ambulances carrying emergency patients to take desperately sick people miles further for treatment.
The Government was criticised by influenza experts for failing to introduce a national public advertising campaign about the perils of swine flu until Jan 1, by which time the outbreak was on course to hit epidemic levels.
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, said: “It is really worrying that the NHS is not prepared to deal with these sorts of pressures. The system is on a knife-edge, and it does not have enough slack in it to cope once we have an outbreak of flu and cases of norovirus.”
She said the charity was “inundated” with calls from elderly people who had their operations cancelled and had not been given a date for the surgery to go ahead. “What concerns me even more is that this is happening at a time when the health service is gearing up to make major savings, and massive reforms,” said Ms Murphy.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said there was always more pressure on the NHS at this time of year and insisted that the service had been prepared and was coping well. “This year’s flu has resulted in greater than usual numbers of patients requiring critical care,” he said.
“Where necessary, local NHS organisations have increased their critical care capacity, in part by delaying routine operations requiring critical care back-up. This is a normal operational process which is initiated by NHS organisations at the local level.”
Opposing illegal traveller sites isn’t racist, British Environment boss tells Gypsies’ leader
Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman rejected claims of ‘gipsy racism’ yesterday after pledging to take tough new action against illegal traveller sites.
Ms Spelman clashed with a travellers’ leader as she defended villagers in her Midlands constituency who have staged a round-the-clock demonstration for more than six months against an encampment on greenbelt land.
Travellers’ leader Jake Bowers called the protesters ‘racists’ and compared Ms Spelman’s approach to the ‘Deep South’ of America, where slavery flourished until the Civil War.
The confrontation on Radio 4’s Today programme came after Mr Bowers, editor of the Travellers’ Times magazine, claimed the protest in Ms Spelman’s Meriden constituency in Warwickshire had nothing to do with whether the camp was legal.
‘When the mask slips, the real reason they are there is because there are gipsies in their village and they don’t like it,’ he said. He added the racism charge would be given legal weight as a result of ‘gipsies and Irish travellers’ being included as an ethnic minority for the first time in the ten-year census due on March 27. Mr Bowers taunted Ms Spelman: ‘Come on Caroline, this is more Deep South than Middle England.’
Ms Spelman said: ‘I don’t think it is an issue of racism. There is an issue with planning law.’
The camp was established after a travellers’ group exploited council workers being off over a Bank Holiday weekend to set up a permanent site without planning permission.
Villagers have been blockading an illegal settlement to prevent travellers getting building materials on to it.
Ms Spelman said new laws to be unveiled in the Commons tomorrow will bring about ‘fairness between the settled and travelling communities by providing more authorised sites – while closing a loophole which allows travellers to apply for and obtain retrospective planning permission after having set up camp.’
British teacher pursues seven-year battle to return to classroom after being acquitted of sexual assault
A teacher falsely accused of groping school girls is to launch a final bid to clear his name after a seven-year battle in which the allegations on his police record have prevented him from getting another job.
Robert King, 45, was acquitted of sexually assaulting four girls following a criminal trial but was subsequently fired from his job and lost an appeal in which he claimed unfair dismissal. He has since been unable to teach as the allegations appear on enhanced Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, casting a permanent veil of suspicion.
The experience has left him battling depression and has cost him £154,000, including his home.
Due to his lack of financial resources, Mr King will represent himself when he appears before the Employment Appeal Tribunal in London on Monday in a bid to win the right to lodge an appeal against Sheffield City Council’s decision to uphold his dismissal.
He said: “When I was acquitted of the charges, I left the court with my head held high. “But these malicious allegations have stopped me from doing a job I love. “I can’t afford to give up on it now. I’ve lost everything already and I’ve nothing more to lose. “These matters are critically important for teaching as a whole, not just myself.”
The science teacher was suspended from Handsworth Grange Community Sports College in Sheffield, where he had worked for two years, in May 2004 after four girls alleged that he had touched them inappropriately.
Mr King, who gave up a 15-year career with the Postal Service to retrain as a teacher, claimed he was the victim of a “witch hunt” by friends of a boy whom he had been instrumental in excluding.
He appeared at Sheffield Crown Court in October 2005 and was acquitted of four counts of sexual assault and two charges of sexual activity with a child. Despite the jury’s verdict, school governors formally dismissed him in May 2006.
Among the reasons given for his dismissal were that he played snooker and bowls in the school’s catchment area while suspended and used “industrial language” in the classroom, including the phrase “shut the book up”, when trying to attract pupils’ attention. One student reported him for using the word “rubber” instead of eraser in class, which she claimed had a sexual connotation.
A year later, Mr King lost his unfair dismissal case at an employment tribunal when Sheffield City Council successfully argued that there had been a “breakdown in trust and confidence” as well as citing other matters.
The false sexual allegations remain on the council’s “dismissal register” as well as on Mr King’s CRB certificate, ensuring that he has since failed to get work with local teaching agencies. He has also been forced to give up the 2,000 hours a year voluntary work he did with the Red Cross and local Army and Air Cadets.
Diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety, he has not worked since and has only recently felt capable of pursuing the matter.
If his appeal is allowed, Mr King will argue that a conflict of law prevented the employment tribunal from allowing him to return to work as it was awaiting the result of a government safeguarding inquiry, which could have barred him from working with children.
The Children’s Safeguarding Operations Unit confirmed in 2008 that the Secretary of State, then Ed Balls, had decided not to take any action preventing him from working with children under Section 142 of the Education Act, widely known as List 99.
Mr King said: “The tribunal decision was both perverse and statutorily unfair as they did not have the ability to return me to work.” He will also challenge Sheffield City Council’s decision to put him on the “dismissal register” and South Yorkshire Police’s disclosure of the allegations on his CRB certificate.