Red Cross warns of 'humanitarian crisis' as it steps in to help NHS

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The Red Cross has stepped in to help the NHS in England cope with winter pressures, warning of a "humanitarian crisis" as it emerged two patients died in the same accident and emergency department in the last week.

The latest figures show overflowing A&E departments have shut their doors to patients more than 140 times in December.

On Friday a national body warned that a third of health trusts in England had issued alerts that they needed urgent action to cope last month, with seven of those unable to provide comprehensive care.

Meanwhile it was revealed the London Ambulance Service suffered a computer blackout on New Year's Eve that forced call handlers to revert to pen and paper on the busiest night of the year.

NHS England said plans were in place to deal with demand and urged the public to use pharmacies and NHS 111 for medical advice.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said it was "staggering" that the Red Cross had been drafted in to help.

"For the Red Cross to brand the situation a 'humanitarian crisis' should be a badge of shame for Government ministers," he said.

The charity's chief executive, Mike Adamson, said extra cash was needed for health and social care.

"The British Red Cross is on the front line, responding to the humanitarian crisis in our hospital and ambulance services across the country," he said.

"We have been called in to support the NHS and help get people home from hospital and free up much-needed beds."

Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust said on Friday that it was investigating two deaths at Worcestershire Royal Hospital's A&E department in the last week.

In one of the cases a female patient on an emergency trolley on a corridor suffered an aneurysm and later died in a resuscitation bay, it is understood.

Another patient died after suffering a cardiac arrest on another A&E trolley after waiting 35 hours for a ward bed elsewhere in the hospital.

The trust said it was also investigating the death of a third patient on a separate ward in the same period.

All three deaths happened between Saturday and midnight on Tuesday.

The trust said accident and emergency departments had been "extremely busy" through Christmas and New Year.

News of the deaths came as NHS England data was released showing that, from December 1 to January 1, there were 143 A&E diverts across England, a 63% rise on the 88 recorded for December 1 to January 3 the previous year.

NHS officials say A&E diverts should only occur as a "last resort" and are put in place when A&E departments cannot cope with any more patients.

Instead, patients are sent to other hospitals for treatment.

The latest data show there were 42 diverts over Christmas week (week ending January 1) - the highest on record.

This compares with about 20 diverts on average over a typical winter week of the NHS.

Other data compiled by the Nuffield Trust shows a third of the 150 English hospital trusts warned they needed urgent action to cope last month.

In the worst cases, seven of the 50 trusts that issued alerts announced they were unable to give patients comprehensive care.

NHS England data for the week ending January 1 shows there were 372,000 attendances at A&E during the week, 40,000 more than the previous week (332,000).

There were 92,000 emergency admissions over the course of the week, up on the previous week (89,000).

The busiest day of the week for attendances was December 27 when there were 60,000 A&E attendances. Emergency admissions peaked at 14,600 the following day.

Dr Taj Hassan, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said the emergency care system is "on its knees" and staff are "struggling to cope with the intense demands being put upon them".

"The scale of the crisis affecting emergency care systems has reached new heights, as we predicted, mainly due to a lack of investment in both social and acute health care beds, as well as emergency department staffing."

Dr Mark Holland of the Society for Acute Medicine told BBC Breakfast that the term humanitarian crisis probably has "some validity".

In recent weeks people "who should be in a specialty bed are ending up in a non-specialty bed or there are beds being created in the hospital that we call contingency beds".

He said the system has "struggled" over the last year or two years due to a build-up in the people who are medically fit for hospital discharge.

An NHS England spokesman, said: "Plans remain in place to deal with additional demands during the winter period, and the public can still play their part using local pharmacy and NHS 111 for medical advice, alongside other services."