“Don’t get sick if you can avoid it,” the minister says, and it’s “reasonable” to wear a mask when sick

Ambulance services have reported high demand and have to queue outside hospitals with patients (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

Ambulance services have reported high demand and have to queue outside hospitals with patients (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

Health bosses urged the public on Tuesday to “avoid unnecessary illness” as the NHS faces a crisis.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has recommended wearing masks outdoors to help stop the spread of Covid and flu, as well as scarlet fever.

The viruses sweeping the country are putting extra pressure on the NHS at a time when the service is already under strain.

NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor, who represents organizations in healthcare, said the situation hospitals were in was “very difficult”.

“There is no doubt that the situation is very difficult – which is why many trusts have declared critical incidents,” he told the BBC on Tuesday.

“We are unable to provide the level of service we would like to provide.

“It’s important to say the NHS is there for you if you need it, but it’s also important for the public to be clear about the situation we’re in and how the public can help.

“I welcome this new advice about people wearing masks and not going out if they are sick, keeping children out of school as we must do everything we can to avoid unnecessary illness.

“The simple reality is that the health service is trapped between the fact that it has limited capacity, especially when it comes to the workforce – 130,000 vacancies – and a level of demand that is difficult to meet in ordinary times.

“When you add flu and Covid, which not only allows for a course that affects patients but also means every staff is sick, then you get to this very difficult situation we’re in.”

Mr Taylor urged ministers to “consider ways to resume negotiations with trade unions” as the NHS faces another wave of strikes this month.

Ambulance staff will leave on January 11 and 23, and nursing staff will go on strike for two consecutive days on January 18 and 19. This follows protests by ambulance staff on December 21 and nurses on December 15 and 20.

The Transport Secretary has recommended that people get vaccinated to stave off the impact of Covid, and said wearing a mask is “reasonable” if they have to leave the house while sick.

Asked if he would wear a mask if he was sick, Mark Harper told LBC: “First of all, you should stay home if you think you have Covid or have the flu – in fact, the most prudent thing is not to go out and spread the word.

“If you go out, apparently wearing a mask is very sensible if you’re sick.

“But we are now dealing with these diseases through vaccination.

“People should get vaccinated against Covid, they should also get vaccinated against flu. This winter, we’ve seen a very high level of flu.”

Latest NHS England figures show there were 3,746 flu patients in hospital in the week ending December 25, up from 520 the previous month.

Nearly 270 people in the country were in intensive care beds with the virus. At the same time last year, there were only 34 flu patients in the hospital, two of them in the intensive care unit.

A total of 310 flu patients occupied hospital beds in London on Christmas Eve.

Hospitals are also struggling with longer waiting times for emergency services.

The latest figures show that more than one in seven patients arriving by ambulance at a London hospital (16.2 per cent) waited more than 60 minutes to be handed over to staff in the week leading up to December 18 – an increase of more than 6 per cent for the month.

Richard Webber, a spokesman for the College of Paramedics, said hospitals were unable to discharge patients due to a shortage of care workers and retirement homes.

He told BBC Radio 4: “I have spoken to colleagues who work in acute hospitals and they are full of patients who should be elsewhere, should be discharged to care homes or need community support.

“There is a shortage of social care staff and a lack of capacity in social care, many hospitals have 100 or 200 patients who should not be in hospital.

“They should be in social care elsewhere, they can’t be discharged which means patients in the emergency department can’t be admitted to hospital.

“It just seems completely odd to me that we have a patient who has been deemed medically fit by the consultant to go home or to another place of care, left in bed, [but] someone who is not healthy sits outside the ambulance for eight or ten hours waiting to be admitted.

“The real problem is getting patients out of hospital and getting the system working, and that can only be achieved with more investment in social care.”

The pressure on the NHS is “unbearable” and has become a “serious crisis”, former Royal College of Nursing head Dr Peter Carter has said.

“It’s a terrible set of circumstances we find ourselves in and we know it’s the result of years of underinvestment, especially in social care,” he said.

“Now, because of winter, flu, Covid and many other issues, you have a serious crisis.

“In August, an 87-year-old man from Cornwall spent 15 hours lying in his garden and his family built a makeshift shelter because they couldn’t call an ambulance.

“We have a crisis and there are no good people trying to weaken it.

“Right now the situation is unbearable and I feel sorry for the patients, but I feel sorry for the staff as well.”

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