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Due to it being the week of Christmas, overall activity fell in week four. However, levels remain higher compared to the same point last year across many of the measures.

Recent data (30 December) show over 146,000 COVID-19 cases being recorded in England, an increase of 6% since the day before and a considerable increase of 37% since last week. There were over 11,000 patients in hospital, a significant increase of 61% since last week.

Key headlines from winter sit reps (20 December – 26 December)

  • General and acute bed occupancy fell from 92.3% to 86.3%. As seen in previous years, more patients tend to be discharged from hospital during Christmas week. However, bed occupancy remains quite high compared to the same time last year (82.9%).

  • A total of 83,001 patients arrived by ambulance this week, 544 fewer than last week (0.7% lower) and 4% lower than the same time last year (3,464 fewer).

  • 13.4% of ambulance handovers were delayed by 30 minutes or more this week, considerably lower than last week (19.6%) and 3.5% were delayed by 60 minutes or longer (also down from 7.3% last week).

  • A&E diverts increased slightly to 15 (2 more than last week).

  • Adult critical care bed occupancy was 75.4%, down from 80.0% last week and lower than the same time last year (76.0%).

  • Paediatric intensive care bed occupancy was 79.8%, down from 81.2% last week but remains higher than levels seen last year. Neonatal intensive care bed occupancy was 67.9%, down from 71.8% last week but also remains higher than levels seen last year.

  • The number of patients staying longer than seven, 14 and 21 days fell considerably this week (down by 8.2%, 5.3% and 4.8%, respectively).

  • The number of beds closed with diarrhoea and vomiting and norovirus fell considerably by 14.1% to 273 this week. This remains considerably higher than levels seen last year (46) but considerably lower than two years ago (448).

  • An average of 19,325 patients no longer met the criteria to reside in hospital. Of these, 9,948 (51.5%) remained in hospital, down from 54.5% last week.

Although there was a slight dip in the figures this week, the numbers continue to highlight the increased pressures on trusts as figures are considerably higher than the same time last year. Based on trends from previous years and the effects of the Omicron variant, we can expect that these pressures will remain over the coming weeks.

Staff absences the biggest immediate challenge for trusts

Responding to the latest winter reporting data from NHS England and NHS Improvement, the chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson said:

"These figures confirm the worrying spike in staff absences affecting hospitals, mental health, community and ambulance services.

"This is the biggest immediate challenge for trusts as they deal with the surge in Omicron cases together with continuing pressures on emergency care, urgent planned care that cannot be delayed any longer and the ongoing vaccination programme.

"In that context it is reassuring to see bed occupancy levels stabilising, albeit at a high level.

"And there has been some progress in ensuring patients are discharged promptly when they are medically fit to return home or to other community settings.

"That reflects effective collaboration between trusts and partners across health and care in the face of continuing severe pressures.

"It will be particularly important in the coming days to look out for evidence of severe COVID-19 symptoms affecting older, vulnerable patients and impacting on critical care as we saw earlier in the year. We haven't seen that on a major scale yet, but it still could arrive.

"So it's absolutely right that the NHS is putting in place plans for a 'super surge'. It's hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

"And the government must stand ready to act on restrictions if needed.

"Yet again, we see NHS staff working flat out through the festive period in very tough and uncertain circumstances.

"It's vital they have quick and easy access to tests, so they can get back to work safely without unnecessary delays."