Crisis-hit hospital on ‘black alert’

Covid and heatwave result in state of emergency for Whittington

Friday, 15th July — By Tom Foot

Whittington cat copy

THE Whittington is in a state of emergency with hospital bosses declaring a rare “black alert” amid warnings the hospital can no longer guarantee patient safety.

Staff are struggling to cope with a spike in Covid sickness absences, a surge in admissions due to the sweltering heat and a long-running staffing crisis, with recruitment made harder by Brexit.

The black alert – shared in an internal ­bulletin to staff on Wednesday – is the most severe NHS warning level that is only made when a hospital is “unable to deliver comprehensive care” or has no beds free and “patient safety is at risk”.

Unprecedented at the Whittington, the “black alert”, also known as Black OPEL 4, was not even put in place in the winter waves of the pandemic.

The Whittington said it was “very busy” and advised patients to seek alternatives to accident and emergency if possible. But hospital insiders say the hospital should shut its doors to new admissions until the crisis is averted.

A Whittington staff source said: “We thought things were bad during Covid but this is getting ridiculous. You wonder how far things can go. We need a big change, a big investment urgently. Low staffing levels affects not only the safe and efficient provision of service from healthcare staff but also the standards and quality of care received by patients. It demoralises staff, by draining their physical strength.”

They added: “The government is not supporting basic working conditions … there is no way that I will stay in this job long term. It is simply not worth the stress or the low pay.”

Nurses who have been campaigning for a decent pay rise after the pandemic say they are frustrated at being expected to provide the same level service and care while they are so stretched. There is a growing body of evidence showing how low staffing numbers leads to greater levels of mortality, infection, pressure ulcers and medication errors.

There has been a surge of older patients being taken to A&E because of the hot weather, which can aggravate cardiovascular conditions and create breathing problems.

High temperatures are due to continue through to until at least Monday.

Many hospital patients have experienced long waits outside in ambulances that are struggling to quickly transfer them on to the wards because staff are so stretched. This has a knock-on effect of causing delays in responding to 999 calls, said Martin Flaherty, from the association of ambulance chief executives.

In a statement, he said: “Severe delays in ambulance crews being able to hand over their patients are having a very significant impact on the ambulance sector’s ability to respond to patients as quickly as we would like to, because our crews and vehicles are stuck outside those hospitals.”

Before Covid, around three quarters of nurses surveyed by the Royal College of Nursing said they did not feel staff levels on their last shift met the needs of patients. In May this year 85 per cent of staff felt that way.

The RCN’s Pat Cullen said in a statement: “Nursing staff in the UK are being asked to keep going in the face of intolerable pressure, with no end in sight, and too often no meaningful recognition or response to their attempts to escalate risks and issues for patient safety.

“Our members are nursing under unsustainable pressure, and governments are risking lives by failing to take urgent action.”

A spokesperson from Whittington Health NHS Trust said: “We are currently very busy, with lots of people needing our services.

“Our operational planning ensures that we are able to respond to these pressures and continue to put our patients first. We encourage patients, where possible, to consider alternatives to seeking treatment at our Emergency Department such as speaking to their pharmacist, calling 111 or a GP.”

A NHS England statement said: “Near record levels of 999 calls, challenges discharging patients to social care settings, increasing Covid cases – leading to more than 20,000 staff absences – and the current heatwave is inevitably having an impact on NHS capacity. It, however, remains vital that the public continue to dial 999 in an emergency and use 111 online, or their local pharmacy for other health issues and advice.”

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