Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May have defended their record on mental health - just hours after a new report found some patients were being transported 500 miles for emergency treatment.
The shock study by the BMA revealed a startling 40% rise in mental health patients being sent out of their local area to get out-of-hours care.
One patient from Somerset was taken to a facility in the Highlands, some 587 miles away.
The Freedom of Information data was unveiled as both the Health Secretary and Prime Minister hailed the launch of a new scheme to help school pupils receive mental health ‘first aid’.
Writing exclusively for HuffPost UK, Hunt said the government was delivering “a quiet revolution in mental health provision” but the BMA said its probe revealed “a system at breaking point”.
But the BMA report, compiled using data from trusts and clinical commissioning groups,revealed huge gaps in mental health services across the UK, with 5,876 adults sent out of their local area for mental health treatment in 2016/17, a rise of almost 40% from 2014/15.
The findings also revealed that the patchy mental health services meant the bill moving patients in out-of-area beds rose by 47% from £108m in 2014/15 to £159m in 2016/17.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said moving patients such long distances was “completely unacceptable” as he underlined by 2020 an extra £1bn would be added to the mental health budget.
NHS consultant psychiatrist and mental health policy lea of the BMA’s consultants committee Dr Andrew Molodynski said: “The practice of sending patients with severe mental health problems to beds hundreds of miles away from their home and families has become endemic in the NHS.
“The government needs to get a handle on this situation because patients are being routinely failed by a system at breaking point, with tragic consequences.
“Being sent long distances for treatment has an impact on patients’ care and recovery.
“There have been tragic cases where coroners have ruled that the difficulties families have visiting a relative receiving care, as well as poor communication between hospitals in other regions and local mental health services contributed to deaths.”
Patients sent away from home for treatment could expect an average round-trip drive of up to seven and a half hours to see friends and family. If relying on public transport, the journey could be as long as 13 hours.
The five trusts which sent the most adults out of area in 2016/17 were:
Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust – 586
Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust – 410
Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust – 372
Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust – 359
Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust – 316
The five greatest distances patients had to travel to receive care were:
Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust to NHS Highland – 587 miles
Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust to New Craigs Hospital Inverness – 532 miles
Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust to Cornhill Hospital NHS Grampian – 497 miles
Dorset Healthcare University NHS Foundation Trust to Priory Middleton – 323 miles
Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust to Glenbourne Unit Berrisode – 312 miles
The BMA investigation also found that Leicestershire, Derbyshire and parts of north London have been left with no NHS beds for female patients in need of intensive psychiatric care.
David Knight, 29, who had been treated at a hospital 150 miles away from his home in Cornwall, took his own life.
At the inquest into his death in 2016, coroner Dr Emma Carlyon concluded his distance from home “increased the risk of poor communication” with health professionals and “it was very likely that this had a bearing on Mr Knight’s death”.
Dr Carlyon wrote to NHS England calling for a review into the provision of acute mental health beds in the county.
Dr Molodynski said: “When NHS beds are available, patients can be admitted within hours but if there are no free beds in the local area doctors have to take time away from other severely ill patients to find a space, often resorting to private hospitals which, unlike their NHS counterparts, can refuse patients who have not been detained under section leaving doctors with ethical dilemmas.
“Patients then face long waits before being taken miles in locked ambulances to unfamiliar places.
“The huge distances often involved rules out regular visits from friends and relatives at a time in their lives when their support matters most.”
The BMA is calling for parity of esteem between physical and mental health services.
Dr Molodynski added: “It is easier to slash NHS mental health beds to keep waiting lists down in A&E and for routine operations than to address the scale of the problem, and the budget cuts just keep on coming.
“We would never tolerate a situation in which a stroke victim in Somerset had to travel to the Highlands for treatment, and yet this is the reality for some mental health patients.
“The fact that there are some areas of the country without any beds for some female patients is extremely concerning.
“The government says the endemic shortage of NHS mental health beds can be solved by improving community care, but this is naïve. While better community care is welcome, it will not ease the bed crisis completely.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “Of course it is completely unacceptable for patients to be sent hundreds of miles away from their family and friends for treatment – but that is exactly why we’ve committed to end inappropriate placements by 2020.
“We were the first country in the world to legislate for parity of esteem and we’re going to make sure it happens by reforming outdated mental health laws and with waiting time targets to improve standards of care.”