Norovirus caused the equivalent of two entire hospitals to be closed this winter

The number of patients suspected of norovirus this year lead to the equivalent of two entire hospitals being closed.

Offical figures have shown that almost 75,000 beds in the NHS hospitals in England have had to be taken out of service over the course of this winter because of suspected cases of the highly contagious Norovirus infection, the highest figure for five years.

The average number of beds closed each week this winter, 5,722, is 32 per cent higher than the average of the previous four winters.

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On the single worst-affected day this winter, over 1,200 beds had to be taken out of service, equivalent to around two entire hospitals being closed.

With fewer beds available, hospitals find it harder to admit new patients, particularly those being transferred as emergencies from A&E departments. This is a contributing factor to NHS Trusts being unable to meet the Government’s target of 95% of patients attending A&E being seen within four hours.

A sick elderly staying at a hospital

In February, NHS England announced it has temporarily suspended the financial penalties associated with the 4-hour target.

Commenting on the findings of the analysis, RCN Chief Executive and 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.

“This reduction in beds then makes it much harder for A&E departments to get patients admitted to wards quickly as emergencies.  It’s no surprise most Trusts aren’t meeting the A&E four hour target when Norovirus is having this big an impact on bed stocks.

“Bed occupancy rates have also been extremely high this winter, averaging 94 per cent [see note 6] - part of the reason experts recommend that no more than 85 per cent of the beds are occupied at any one time is to prevent infections such as Norovirus spreading.  Infection control procedures are made more difficult when beds have to be turned round so quickly between patients.

“What this shows is that despite the intense focus on the A&E four hour target in coverage of winter pressures on the NHS, there are actually many different factors at play, all interlinked – it’s the whole system of getting patients into and out of hospitals that is broken”.

RCN Professional Lead for Infection Prevention and Control Rose Gallagher commented:

“Patients can help hospitals and nursing staff by informing staff when they’re admitted to hospital if they’ve been showing symptoms of diarrhoea or vomiting, or if the infection is currently affecting those they live with.  In addition, friends and family should not visit people in hospital if they know they are infected themselves.  Finally, many people do not realise that hand sanitisers alone do not provide effective protection against Norovirus – in order to try and break the cycle of infection, people should instead wash their hands with soap and water.

“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.  Norovirus presents a big challenge to nursing staff in winter, and we can all play our part in trying to reduce it”.

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