Tens of thousands of patients are expected to be affected after hospitals in England were told to delay pre-planned operations and routine outpatient appointments until the end of the month due to severe winter pressures.
In a drastic step to try to free up hospital staff and beds, NHS England also said the deferral of non-urgent inpatient elective care – such as hip replacements – should be extended until January 31.
Officials have estimated that this could lead to up to 55,000 deferred operations, although cancer operations and time-critical procedures should go ahead as planned, NHS England said.
Labour accused Jeremy Hunt of “doing a Grayling”, after the Health Secretary – like his Transport counterpart Chris Grayling – was unavailable for interviews on a day when his department came under additional scrutiny.
Justin Madders, the shadow health minister, said: “Patients and staff deserve better than a Health Secretary doing a ‘Grayling’, going to ground and refusing to explain the appalling downturn in standards of care this winter.
“Instead of running scared, Jeremy Hunt must answer for his party’s sustained underfunding of our NHS which has already caused such misery right across the country. After five years in the job, he should be taking responsibility, not fleeing the scene.”
The move comes after leading medics warned that every emergency department in the country is struggling to cope with winter pressures.
Some hospitals have declared themselves at the most severe pressure level while doctors warned that scores are operating at almost full capacity.
Meanwhile a number of ambulance services are also under severe pressure, with two even resorting to taxis to ferry patients to hospital.
NHS England hopes the measures will free up senior hospital doctors to triage more patients in A&E, be available for phone advice for GPs and ensure that patients in hospitals are reviewed twice each day to help timely discharges.
It also announced that sanctions for mixed sex accommodation breaches should be temporarily lifted.
Under NHS rules men and women are supposed to be treated on different wards and breaches can lead to fines. But trusts can now breach the rules without being penalised.
The measures from the health body were announced following a meeting of its National Emergency Pressures Panel, chaired by Professor Sir Bruce Keogh.
Professor Sir Bruce Keogh (Joe Giddens/PA)
In a statement, NHS England said that the panel discussed “sustained pressure over the Christmas period” with high levels of respiratory illness, high bed occupancy levels, signs of increased flu activity and a rise in the number of severe cases attending A&E.
Sir Bruce, NHS England national medical director, said: “I want to thank NHS staff who have worked incredibly hard under sustained pressure to take care of patients over the Christmas.
“We expect these pressures to continue and there are early signs of increased flu prevalence.
“The NHS needs to take further action to increase capacity and minimise disruptive last-minute cancellations. That is why we are making these further recommendations.”
A number of hospital trusts have declared Operational Pressures Escalation Level 4 (OPEL4) which means: “Pressure in the local health and social care system continues to escalate leaving organisations unable to deliver comprehensive care. There is increased potential for patient care and safety to be compromised.”
Among organisations contacted by the Press Association, Darent Valley Hospital A&E in Kent, Royal Cornwall Hospital and University Hospitals Of Leicester NHS Trust and Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust have all said they have declared OPEL4 in the last week.