Over the winter period, almost 75,000 beds in NHS hospitals in England have been closed due to norovirus and diarrhoea and vomiting-like symptoms.
The average number of bed closures each week this winter is 5,722, 32% higher than the average of the previous four winters. On the single worst-affected day, 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 contributes to trusts being unable to meet the Government’s target of 95% of patients attending A&E being seen within four hours.
RCN Chief Executive 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.”
The RCN is urging people attending hospital to inform staff when they arrive if they or people they live with have been experiencing symptoms.
RCN Professional Lead for Infection Prevention and Control Rose Gallagher commented: “Friends and family should not visit people in hospital if they know they are infected themselves. Also, everyone should wash their hands with soap and water instead of relying on hand sanitisers alone as they do not provide effective protection against norovirus.
“Nursing staff also 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.”