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Written Statement - Winter Pressures

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Edwina Hart, Minister for Health and Social Services

The NHS in Wales has been under significant pressure over this winter period.  It is a credit to all health service staff in Wales that despite these pressures, they have been able to continue to deliver vital services.  I would like to thank staff for their hard work and dedication, over what has been a very difficult period for them.

Every winter the NHS expects to see an increase in demand on its services and plans accordingly in an effort to meet that demand. However, this year particularly severe periods of extremely cold weather and snow have put   more pressure on services.  This is on top of the usual health problems associated with winter which staff have had to deal with. 

Today, ambulance performance statistics for December have been published

These figures need to be seen in the context of the pressure that services were under in December. As a result of their efforts, planning, and coordination, services were maintained in very difficult circumstances.

The ambulance service receives more than 25,000 emergency calls every month.  December saw a significant increase in those emergency and life-threatening calls. 

There were more than 35,600 emergency calls in December 2010 – up 18 per cent on December 2009 and up 23 per cent compared with November 2010.  

Naturally ambulance response times will have been affected as crews needed to reduce speeds on the snow and icy roads  - with many of the minor and side roads impassable for more than a week - and as a result the 8 minute response time standard was difficult to achieve.   So severe were the road conditions that in some instances the Fire Service were called out to assist. Let us be clear, these were difficult conditions for all involved.

The figures on accident and emergency also demonstrate just how much pressure health services have been under.

To put this in context, 70,000 people attended emergency departments or minor injuries units across Wales in December 2009. In December 2010, this rose significantly to over 74,400 attendances.

Nearly 84 per cent of patients were seen, treated, transferred or discharged within four hours. While we accept that some patients will have waited longer – and we are working to improve performance – staff would have treated patients in order of clinical priority.

In addition to the slips, trips and falls associated with cold weather, emergency departments have also seen an increase in admissions for heart attacks, stroke and pneumonias. Coupled with that, a number of people attended emergency departments with concerns over seasonal flu. All hospitals have reported an increase in patients with severe respiratory symptoms which required a longer than average stay in hospital as a result, including an increase in those who required critical care. 

Every winter we also see an increase in norovirus – which is also known as the winter vomiting disease – circulating in the community.  A number of wards had to be closed across Wales to limit the spread of infection. This of course also had an impact on services and added to the severe pressure the NHS has been under.

The NHS has plans in place for managing winter pressures and we have been working with Health Boards and the Ambulance Trust to monitor demand and bed capacity, in order to coordinate and manage services through daily senior management conference calls.

We have also launched a campaign, Choose Well, to help people understand where to go if they are unwell.