Non-emergency operations cancelled, staff leave suspended as Covid patients in hospital rise by a third in one week

By Alexandra Warren, Lottie Kilraine and Toby Porter

Hospitals have cancelled non-emergency operations and asked staff to scrap leave as the number of South London Covid-19 patients has risen by up to a third in a single week.

King’s College Hospital (KCH) was forced to cancel all elective surgeries this week – including some cancer operations.

Among the KCH surgeries postponed were “priority two” cancer operations – which cancer specialists have judged to be urgent and need to be done within 28 days of deciding to undertake them.

The decision not to go ahead with the procedures was made to make sure the hospital can take care of the increasing number of Covid-19 patients – many who need to be in the intensive care unit (ICU).All staff leave this week was also called off because of severe “operational pressures” caused by the increased pressure on resources.

A King’s College hospital spokesman said: “Due to the large increase in patients being admitted with Covid-19, including those requiring intensive care, we have taken the difficult decision to postpone all elective procedures, with the exception of cases where a delay would cause immediate harm.

“A small number of cancer patients due to be operated on this week have had their surgery postponed, with patients being kept under close review by senior doctors.”

Some patients may be given chemotherapy as a temporary measure, to try to stop the tumour from growing before they have their rearranged surgery.

All staff are being asked if “they are able to postpone their leave and return to site” – including those who are booked to be on agreed leave this week as “compensation” for working over Christmas and New Year.

The Trust told staff that the situation it is facing may mean it has to cancel staff leave not just this week, but for all of January.

King’s is thought to be the first NHS hospital to cancel priority two operations as a result of the intense pressures of the second wave of the pandemic.

The hospital is on the border between Southwark and Lambeth, where the number of diagnoses rose by 612 and 453 respectively in the week until January 1. Those rises are 28 and 20 per cent respectively.

Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the two hospitals in the Waterloo area, has also called off all elective procedures due to increased strain on their resources.

A spokeswoman said: “To ensure we are able to care for the high number of patients with Covid-19 who require treatment, including those requiring intensive care, we have taken the difficult decision to postpone elective surgery that is not clinically urgent. We continue to provide care to patients who require urgent or emergency care.”

Greenwich had the highest rise in cases last week of South London’s boroughs – rising by almost half in a single week, an increase of 906 cases to 2,956.

There are now 2,860 cases in Lewisham, a rise of 699.

The South London Press understands Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, which runs University Hospital Lewisham and Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, has also paused non-emergency ops and encouraged staff to postpone leave. It hopes to restore all surgery soon.

But Croydon had the highest number of Covid-19 patients – 3,893, a rise of 848, or more than a quarter, on the previous seven-day period.

More than half of the beds at Croydon University Hospital are occupied by coronavirus patients.

The hospital is now treating 244 patients who have tested positive for Covid-19, approaching the 282 patient peak at the height of the first wave of the pandemic in April 2020.

Of the 244 there are 14 Covid-19 patients in critical care with more receiving oxygen through non-invasive ventilation.

To tackle this increase in patients, the health trust has increased critical care capacity by a third to 25 beds.

With ‘unprecendented demand’ on health services, people are asked to call 111 or talk to their GP before going to A&E.

As of Tuesday, 488 people who had tested positive for coronavirus within 28 days had died in the borough of Croydon since the pandemic began.

A total of 388 patients have died at Croydon University Hospital in the same period. Wandsworth had the smallest rise, of 236 cases.

St George’s Hospital in Tooting has now seen its number of coronavirus patients pass the first peak.

As a result it has had to expand the number of intensive care beds from 60 to 120, the vast majority of them for coronavirus patients.

Staff said they were “resilient” to the challenge ahead, but conceded there was little room for manoeuvre.

Dr Mark Haden, an emergency department consultant, told PA: “We make it look like business as usual but it’s very much not – it’s very different to our usual pattern of work.

“Everyone is working to the limit, to the threshold of what they’re able to.

“The hospital bed occupancy is very, very high. It’s very stressful for staff and that is starting to show.”

A spokesman for St George’s said: “Like all hospitals, we are seeing unprecedented demand for our services at present, and we are deploying our winter/Covid-19 plans to ensure we can continue to provide safe and effective care.

“Routine planned operations and outpatient appointments have been postponed until the end of January while urgent and emergency operations (including cancer), outpatient appointments and diagnostics continue.

“We have not cancelled staff annual leave, but staffing is a major challenge. We are incredibly grateful to those staff who have re-arranged or postponed annual leave to support safe and effective staffing in our hospitals. We will continue to support our staff, and the public can do the same by following the rules, and reducing transmission of the virus.”

More information:

The originator of the weekly applause, for NHS and key staff for their efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, has asked for it to resume tonight. The original clap started in the first lockdown in March last year and ran for 10 weeks, every Thursday at 8pm.

Annemarie Plas, from Streatham, who started the clap for carers, ended it in May because of concerns it was becoming politicised.

The Prime Minister had joined in the applause, but faced criticism over the lack of personal protective equipment for NHS staff and for continuing to charge overseas health and care staff for hospital treatment.

On Wednesday, Ms Plas tweeted that she was relaunching the weekly clap. She wrote: “We are bringing back the 8pm applause in our third lockdown. I hope it can lift the spirit of all of us.”

  • Senior nurse at St Thomas’s Hospital warns of staff shortages and poor government planning – see p12

Pictured top: A nurse works on a patient in the intensive care unit at St George’s Hospital in Tooting


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