The decision to drastically cut back emergency care at Kent and Canterbury Hospital has plunged neighbouring A&E departments into crisis – with waiting times in east Kent the worst in the country.
Close to 200 patients a day are waiting more than four hours to be seen in A&Es at Ashford’s William Harvey and the QEQM in Thanet, with conditions likened to those in third-world countries.
Both departments are buckling under the added strain of extra patients diverted from Canterbury’s urgent care centre, which was closed to virtually all emergency admissions in June.
The knock-on effect is just 61% of A&E patients last month being seen within the NHS benchmark of four hours – the worst in England and against a national average of almost 86%.
Retired health and safety manager Richard Facer has accused the east Kent hospitals trust of “playing with people’s lives”.
The 65-year-old spent an afternoon in William Harvey’s A&E last week when his son-in-law was rushed in by ambulance after being knocked off his bicycle.
“It’s like a wartorn country,” he said. “The images you see on TV of these overcrowded wards, that’s happening here.
“I was amazed at how many people were crammed into the department. Patients were being left in the open on the ward or just left sitting in chairs.
“The level of overcrowding is something I would expect to see in a third-world country, not in a hospital in Great Britain.
“The staff were doing their level best to cope, and doing it admirably, but I can’t believe the trust did not foresee what is clearly a crisis, and something that is putting patients’ lives at risk.”
The crisis has largely been sparked by an influx of patients who would have previously been treated at the K&C, which was forced to downgrade its emergency care centre last summer after Health Education England (HEE) threatened to pull junior doctors from the site.
It found trainee medics were treating seriously ill patients without adequate supervision from consultants.
In an attempt to retain the K&C’s junior doctors, health chiefs diverted all patients with mental health issues, severe stomach pain or alcohol intoxication to Ashford and Margate.
But it only earned them a temporary reprieve, with HEE revisiting in March and ordering the trust to transfer 46 trainees out of Canterbury to its sister hospitals.
The removal of the junior doctors forced the trust to also shift its emergency heart and stroke services to the William Harvey and QEQM, with the final changes implemented in June.
It means 100 extra patients a day are attending A&Es compared to six months ago.
Ken Rogers, the chairman of campaign group Concern for Health in East Kent, says the hospitals trust has made a “terrible mess” of the situation.
“I’m not surprised they’re the worst in the country,” he said. “We’re constantly hearing reports about how long people are having to wait.
“We expected it anyway, which is why we keep on at them to get the services back to the K&C because it’s putting too much pressure on the A&Es in Ashford and Margate.
“The trust should have seen this coming a long time ago.
“They probably realise they’ve made a terrible, terrible mess of it and they’ve only got themselves to blame – but it’s not them that suffers, it’s the patients.”
Jane Ely, chief operating officer at East Kent Hospitals, says the trust is working to reduce waiting times.
She said: "It is not true to say that the temporary changes at K&C have increased waiting times at East Kent’s A&E departments.
"Canterbury residents are continuing to use the 24/7 minor injury unit at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital.
"Our emergency departments are very busy, particularly at this time of year..." - Jane Ely
"There has not been an A&E at Canterbury since 2005, and the small number of people who were previously brought to the urgent care centre at K&C by ambulance with a suspected stroke or heart attack, and are now taken to Ashford and Margate, has not increased.
"Our emergency departments are very busy, particularly at this time of year with the increase in visitors and the number of elderly residents with complex health conditions, which are exacerbated by the warmer weather.
"We are working hard to reduce waiting times by increasing the number of people who can be seen and treated in ambulatory care and discharged on the same day. We are also working closely with GPs and community staff so that people are seen at home, avoiding unnecessary trips to hospital.
"We are continuing to work hard to ensure that patients who are admitted to hospital are discharged when they no longer need acute hospital care, either home with a care package or to a rehabilitation bed to continue their recovery.
"About a quarter of the people coming to our A&E departments do not need emergency treatment and this can lead to some patients waiting longer than we would like. Patients are assessed on arrival to the A&E and are prioritised according to need."