When announcing the national lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the NHS risked being overwhelmed if the measures weren’t taken.
But statistics suggest that the proportion of beds currently occupied by patients is actually lower than usual.
So how can both things be true?
What is different this year?
Winter is normally an incredibly busy time for the NHS, coinciding with the peak of the flu season.
This is why we often see new stories at this time of year about patients facing long waits for care and ambulances struggling to get patients into emergency departments.
But this year, the system is facing the added pressure of preventing coronavirus spreading between patients while anticipating surges in cases.
The changes this year include:
- Less space for beds due to the need for larger gaps between them
- The division of wards into three zones: those for people with coronavirus, those awaiting test results and those who have tested negative
- Increased infection control – including cleaning and putting on personal protective equipment (PPE) – which takes up staff time
- Increased critical care beds and patients, which require more intensive staffing
Combined, these factors mean that hospitals have less capacity than usual, meaning fewer beds are available for fewer patients.
In total, NHS hospitals in England have about 7,000 fewer available beds than usual.
What does the data show?
The data shows that hospitals were at about 87% occupancy in December and early January, however this figure increases to just over 90% in London and the South East.
This means that for every 10 hospital beds available across England, roughly nine had a patient in them on any given day.
This occupancy rate is actually noticeably lower than a usual year. In a normal winter, occupancy tends to average between 93% and 95%.
Read more: Covid: How busy are hospitals in England?