UK health official warns against 'long runs' amid NHS stress

Sir Frank Atherton says 'now is not the time' for people to put themselves at risk

Runners make their way through Canary Wharf during the TCS London Marathon in October. PA
Powered by automated translation

A chief medical officer has advised the public not to go on long runs amid unprecedented pressure facing the country’s National Health Service.

Sir Frank Atherton said anyone who was hoping to lose weight should avoid placing demands on the NHS, given delays to ambulance response and because the service can “only meet the needs of the most seriously ill”.

“Now is not the time to be going out and starting to do a huge, long run,” the chief medical officer for Wales told BBC One.

"We want people to get fit and active in the new year, of course we do, but do it sensibly. Think about pacing yourself, about not taking on too much all at once.

“Keeping yourself warm at home is really important as well, looking after your health. I know that's very difficult with the cost-of-living crisis.

“Watch out for your loved ones, make sure that people are kept safe, particularly the elderly at this time of year, that they are well hydrated at home, because people can get dehydrated very quickly.

"And we know that elderly people who get dehydrated then run into problems with frailty. They have falls, they need to be brought to hospital.

"So we can look after each other and look after ourselves and keep the NHS capacity for those who really need it.”

Sir Frank said that when alcohol “gets thrown into the mix”, good behaviour can “sometimes go out of the window”.

He urged people to behave sensibly and not put themselves at risk.

“Don’t drink too much and don't get into trouble,” Sir Frank said. “We do see that, sadly, in the UK at this time of year.

"Similarly, this is not the time to be putting yourself at risk with dangerous activities, anything that increases the risk to you in person, given the fact we do have delays to ambulance services and they really can only meet the needs of the most seriously ill.”

The warning follows a claim by a senior health official who said as many as 500 people could be dying each week because of delays to emergency care.

Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, believes waiting times for December would have been the worst he has ever seen, with more than a dozen NHS Trusts and ambulance services declaring critical incidents over the festive period.

A severe flu outbreak and rising Covid-19 cases are adding pressure to the system and overwhelming hospitals with patients.

The latest data from the NHS, which has been hit by strikes by nurses and paramedics in recent weeks, shows the number of flu patients in hospitals in England has jumped by nearly 80 per cent in a week.

There were 3,746 patients a day in hospital with flu in the week ending on Christmas Day, figures from NHS England show, up from 2,088 a day in the week before.

The figures, published on Friday, showed an increase of 79.4 per cent.

“We went into this December with the worst-ever performance against our target and the highest-ever occupancy levels in hospital," Dr Boyle told Times Radio.

Nurses strike in the UK — in pictures

“We don't know about the waiting time figures because they don't come out for a couple of weeks. I'd be amazed if they're not the worst ever that we've seen over this December.

“What we're seeing now in terms of these long waits is being associated with increased mortality, and we think somewhere between 300 and 500 people are dying as a consequence of delays and problems with urgent and emergency care each week. We need to actually get a grip of this.”

In November, 37,837 patients waited more than 12 hours in A&E for a decision to be admitted to a hospital department, according to figures from NHS England.

This is an increase of almost 355 per cent compared with the previous November, when an estimated 10,646 patients waited longer than 12 hours.

“If you look at the graphs, they all are going the wrong way, and I think there needs to be a real reset," Dr Boyle said.

"We need to be in a situation where we cannot just shrug our shoulders and say: 'This winter was terrible, let's do nothing until next winter'.

“We need to increase our capacity within our hospitals, we need to make sure that there are alternative ways so that people aren't all just funnelled into the ambulance service and emergency department.

“We cannot continue like this — it is unsafe and it is undignified.”

Some critically ill patients have reportedly waited hours for a bed, and ambulances have been unable to pick up those in need because they have been stuck waiting to hand over patients to hospital.

Last week, one in five ambulance patients in England waited more than an hour to be passed to A&E teams.

NHS trusts have a target of 95 per cent of all ambulance handovers to be completed within 30 minutes, and 100 per cent within 60 minutes.

Dr Boyle said it is “absolutely never too late” to get a flu vaccination and encouraged those who are eligible to get one to reduce pressure on hospitals.

He said there is likely to be a larger outbreak this year because immunity has dropped after isolation measures introduced to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Flu and Covid cause a number of problems. First of all you have patients who need to be admitted to hospital, but you also get staff getting sick, and that creates a workforce problem.

“And it's also incredibly disruptive for the hospital because you have to put them into separate areas and separate wards. We can't look after people in hospital where people without flu are next to people with flu, because we don't want to give people who get admitted into hospital the flu.

“So the whole thing of infectious disease outbreak is extremely disruptive. We haven't had an outbreak for the last two years because of all the things we have done around Covid and this year is shaping up to be a pretty awful flu season.”

Also on Sunday, a senior health official urged the government to declare a national NHS major incident to rescue the healthcare system from the current crisis.

It would mean all four UK nations would co-ordinate their response and allocate resources to help meet the overwhelming demand for care that is felt by many hospitals around the country.

“The current situation in urgent and emergency care is shocking. It is in a critical state for patients and it is an extremely difficult for healthcare staff who are unable to deliver the care they want to," said Dr Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine.

“Political leaders across the UK need to listen, meet urgently and accept the need to declare a national NHS major incident.

“The outcome must be a four-nation emergency strategy which results in short-term stabilisation, medium-term improvement and long-term growth. The grave situation we are in means it will be a long journey.

“Sustainable workforce and capacity plans are required urgently to boost morale among staff and patients – as we have long called for – and we now need to see action.”

Early on New Year’s Day, interim chief executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery said the NHS is under “equivalent levels of pressure” as during the early stage of the pandemic.

Dr Cooksley said many of the current problems are not new and recommendations had been outlined since the pandemic that offer the “best hope” of a short-term solution.

“These cover, among other things, increased investment in primary care, social care, mental health and ambulance services, and quick-access phone lines for communication between secondary and primary care," he said.

“There must be a seven-day range of healthcare options to which NHS 111 and primary care can direct patients and hospitals must urgently expand same day emergency care – delivered by acute medical teams — for patients referred from primary care and NHS 111.

“Patients with specialty hospital referrals need a rapid response and a treatment plan that minimises unnecessary admission to improve flow and prevent delays so they can be moved from ambulances quickly and treated in safe areas.

“Diagnostic and support services must be available seven days a week to maintain patient flow and local healthcare systems must expand community care.

“Discharge planning should commence on admission and be optimised so that patients discharged from hospital are transferred to an environment with tailored support for their health and care at an appropriate time of the day.

“This is a time of crisis and there are fears this will worsen further over the coming months, so leaders must prioritise those improvements we can make now that will help us to navigate this turbulent period.”

Updated: January 01, 2023, 6:36 PM