Published: 14:33, 20 November 2021
| Updated: 16:36, 24 November 2021
Fears of a winter health crisis grow as new figures reveal Kent’s A&E departments are seeing more patients than ever before - at the same as 1,000 hospital staff are off sick.
Last month the county’s emergency units recorded 55,591 arrivals - the equivalent of one person every 48 seconds.
And almost a third of those were left waiting more than four hours to be seen as pressure continues to mount on exhausted and depleted hospital teams.
The most recent figures show 990 staff across hospitals in Kent were off sick on November 3 - almost one in five of them because of Covid.
It comes amid claims health workers are facing “burn-out” as they struggle to cope with the increasing demand.
Earlier this week one of Kent’s A&E departments was likened to a “warzone” by a patient forced to wait 11 hours in a corridor at the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford.
But Jordan Dadd was lucky enough not to count himself among the 158 patients in east Kent enduring “trolley waits” of more than 12 hours to be admitted.
The figure is the highest in the south east and dwarfs Kent’s other three trusts, who together recorded just six.
But all corners of the county are feeling the heat in terms of patient numbers, with 14,186 more visits to A&E last month than in October last year.
The knock-on effect has been an increase in waiting times for every Kent trust.
Medway is performing worst, with just 62% of A&E patients in October seen within the government’s benchmark of four hours.
Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells has the best figures, at 77%, but this is down from 96% in March.
News of the long waits sparked huge debate, as well as much sympathy for staff, when shared on KentOnline's Facebook page earlier this week.
One commenter, a nurse who works in an emergency department for children, blames people attending hospitals unnecessarily, saying: “A&E now stands for Anything and Everything!”
She added: “If you’re waiting such a long time, is A&E the place you need to be?
“GPs need to reopen properly, people need to use pharmacies for advice, 111 needs to be scrapped as it does nothing but scare parents! And the use of minor injury units need to be done so appropriately, too.”
Health bosses in the county say the impact of Covid is exacerbating what is already a busy time of year.
Currently there are 160 patients in Kent with the virus, but the number has fallen for two consecutive weeks.
An NHS Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group spokesperson said: “The NHS is very busy every winter, but this year we’re also seeing the impact of the pandemic.
"People who had put off contacting the NHS during lockdowns are now coming forward, and we still have significant levels of Covid infections on top of regular winter viruses.
"The increase in demand is across all services, not just A&E. All our teams are working very hard to make sure they see patients as quickly as possible."
The spokesman says people can help cut numbers by making the right choice about the care they need.
"For example, pharmacists can support with a lot of everyday minor condition,s and the NHS 111 service is there to give clinical advice and direct people to best services for their needs," she said.
"GP-led urgent treatment centres across Kent and Medway also provide urgent care.
"We ask that accident and emergency is left for those who really need it. If you are not sure call 111 first. Taking steps to prevent yourself getting sick are also important, and we’d encourage anyone who is eligible for a Covid-19 or flu vaccination has one.’’
The local organiser for Unison - the biggest union for health workers - says the NHS has been experiencing “winter-style pressures” for months.
Its regional organiser, Joshua Cooper, said: “There are real fears that staff and services will be unable to cope as demand continues to increase.
“Lengthy delays are causing much distress to ambulance crews, control room staff and emergency department workers.
“After the horrors of the pandemic, it’s not surprising many NHS workers have reached burn-out. They cannot be left to just carry on doing excessive hours without proper breaks and rest between shifts.
“Employers must act swiftly by doing all they can to limit the unprecedented pressures on staff.”
Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield has urged ministers to “intervene quickly” to tackle the growing problems.
The Labour MP said: “Behind every statistic of a patient spending hours waiting for hospital admission is a person – someone’s loved one, often at their most vulnerable.
“It can’t be right that more than a third of patients in A&E [in east Kent] are left waiting for more than four hours.
“Staff have been pushed to their limits as pressures grow and grow. The longer it takes for ministers to act, the worse the situation will get and the more people will suffer as a result.”
While hundreds of staff are off work in Kent, sickness rates are still lower than those seen nationally.
Ms Duffield says the NHS was already on its knees before the pandemic and the situation has spiralled.
“The coming winter is set to be the most challenging in the NHS’s history – that’s why the government needs to bring forward urgently a plan to fix the health and care workforce crisis and relieve the overwhelming pressure faced by hospitals, primary care and ambulance services.”