Published: 06:00, 19 October 2020
Hospitals in Kent have cleared more than a third of all their inpatients with wards reducing to almost half their capacity during the coronavirus pandemic.
On average, just 310 of the county's 2,828 overnight beds (11%) were available as chiefs grappled with the possibility of hospitals being overwhelmed during the first wave.
As infections spiralled during March and April, drastic measures saw more than 1,000 patients shifted from wards.
Analysis of the NHS figures by KentOnline shows 54.6% (1,500) of the county's available beds were occupied per night between March and June – representing a 34.4% reduction on January to March when there were 2,518 inpatients on average per night, at an occupancy rate of 89%.
It reveals the stark reality of the risk faced by the county's hospitals of being overrun by Covid patients.
The national average across England dropped from 86.3% to 64.4% of beds occupied between the two periods.
Hospital bosses revealed the need to make space for a potential surge in patients but also attempt to restrict the spread of the virus across departments and throughout hospitals.
Many created dedicated Covid wards and separated areas of the hospital and emergency departments for those coming in with potential Covid-19 and those without.
The numbers published by NHS England reveal, on average, 2,746 beds were available per day between March and June. This fell from the 2,828 available on average between January and March.
Every hospital trust in Kent – East Kent, Medway, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells and Dartford and Gravesham – saw the amount of beds occupied reduce.
Medway NHS Foundation Trust (MFT) recorded the biggest drop with 284 fewer beds occupied on average each night – a reduction of 57.1% – in the three months from March compared to the first quarter of the year when 429 (86.2%) of the 497 available beds were occupied.
Between March and June this number fell to 145 beds occupied on average per night – equal to 29.1%.
East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust (EKHUFT) is the largest hospital trust in Kent with 1,031 overnight beds available at the five hospitals it is responsible for in Ashford, Canterbury, Folkestone, Dover and Margate.
Occupancy fell from 926 beds per night (89.8%) to 609 (59.1%) at an average of 317 beds per night cleared by the trust.
Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust, which runs Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford, reduced its available beds from 540 to 499.
But it remains the most occupied trust with average occupancy falling from 89.5% (483) to 71.9% (359)
Trust chief executive Louise Ashley stressed it was her aim to ensure regular services resume during the second spike of the virus and that the hospital remains ready for Covid-19.
Available beds at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust also dropped – from 760 to 719.
Average occupancy between the two periods dropped from 89.5% (680) to 53.8% (387).
Hospital beds in Kent are classed under general and acute care and for maternity.
Maternity bed occupancy levels in Kent dropped slightly from 66.5% (119) to 58.2% (102) with four fewer beds available from March to June.
There was very little change in the occupancy of mental health inpatient beds recorded by the Kent and Medway NHS Social Care Partnership Trust (KMPT).
The figures showed 383 out of 443 (86.4%) were occupied for mental illness between March and June.
It compares to 395 occupied out of 448 available (88.2%) in the previous three months.
MFT chief executive James Devine hopes occupancy levels do not return to pre-Covid levels to ensure patients who do need to stay in hospital are sent home quicker to allow more patients to be treated.
Speaking to KentOnline previously, Mr Devine said: "Last winter, we had 85 to 90-plus patients in the hospital who didn’t need to be here to continue care.
“At one point we were down to single figures with a view that anything above 25 is a wrong number. Below 25 is manageable and if you get above you’re starting to get to a ward’s worth of patients that don’t need to be here.
“It creates capacity and keeps beds churning over.
“In day cases you could turn over that bed three of four times by having elective day surgery processes and come in at 9am and on your way home just before lunch.
“We absolutely don’t tolerate corridor care and it wouldn’t happen but the issue of people being here longer than ought to be because of issues in other parts of the health and social care sector, I think have drastically improved during Covid.”
Mr Devine added that by having more beds available, waiting times would be reduced as the hospital will have capacity for more patients.