Bosses at Blackpool Victoria Hospital today revealed “unprecedented” levels of demand have seen hundreds of vacant shifts offered to staff over the next three weeks.
Despite recruiting more than 200 nurses in the past 12 months, Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has found itself struggling to cover shifts at one of the busiest times of year.
The Gazette has seen a list of more than 400 shifts that were offered to staff over a four-week period, prompting growing fears the pressure being piled on nurses at the Vic is putting patients at risk.
The trust said the additional shifts are the result of extra wards being opened to cope with a major surge in patients.
It blames the surge on an ageing population and an increase in respiratory problems at this time of year, which are expected to continue throughout this month.
One former nurse at the hospital, who said the extreme workload was behind her decision to quit her job at the Vic, said: “The list of shortages is getting longer every time it is sent out.
“It’s dangerous, it really is.
“I have raised my concerns with managers and matrons and I have written to the Care Quality Commission (CQC).”
The spokesman for the CQC, which regulates health care in England and Wales, said: “I can confirm CQC has received information of concern relating to staffing levels at the hospital, and we are following these up with the trust. The information will also be used to inform our next inspection of the trust.”
In the first two weeks of December, the Vic saw a modest rise in people attending A&E compared to the same period in 2013 – from 3,034 to 3,070.
But the number of people waiting more than four hours to be admitted, discharged or transferred soared by 55 per cent to 392. Emergency admissions also rose in that period from 1,268 to 1,318.
A trust spokesman said: “The trust, like most hospitals across the country, has seen unprecedented levels of demand over the last few weeks in terms of numbers and acuity of patients ,and has planned for similar above-average demand in January.
“The trust has also opened up more beds in recent weeks to cope with the demand, and that means more shifts are available to our nursing staff.
“The trust actively manages the flexing of staff to meet and manage patient risk on a daily basis and patient safety is always the focus of the trust.
“The need for extra staff on the most demanding wards is constantly reviewed to help us provide the highest quality of care possible.”
The list of vacant shifts, which covers the four weeks from New Year’s Eve to January 27, adds up to more than 3,500 hours of work.
It covers A&E, the acute medical unit and various specialist wards. It shows 30 shifts in need of covering tomorrow alone.
The nurse, who asked not to be identified and who said she leaked the list to highlight the scale of the staffing issues, added: “I loved the work but not the stress put on staff.
“I used to work long days – 7.30am until 9pm – and quite often with only a 15-minute break if I was lucky.
“I felt patients were treated as numbers, not as people.”
She said recruitment drives had seen staff brought in from across Europe, but the list of vacancies remained.
“They recruited a lot of nurses from Spain about 18 months ago and many of them have since left,” she added.
She said the combined effect of increased demands and staffing shortages meant patients were being left in corridors due to a lack of beds.
The Gazette spoke to one current Trust employee, who welcomed its efforts to recruit more staff, adding: “There’s so much pressure, particularly in acute hospitals.
“But I think they are travelling in the right direction. In terms of the staffing issue, the Trust is working flat out.”
Paul Wood, operational manager for the Royal College of Nursing in the North West said the increased demand is leaving nurses “over-stretched and exhausted”, warning the use of agency staff and foreign workers is “unsustainable”.
“The NHS is struggling to recruit and retain nurses across the North West,” he said. “Trusts are now desperately trying to recruit staff but the pool of skilled and experience nursing staff has been drained.
“Failure to properly plan and invest will leave a health service struggling to meet the needs of the people of Blackpool and reliant on overseas recruitment for years to come.”
Unnecessary trips to A&E are part of the problem, health chiefs have said.
Between April and September, more than 40,000 people attended the department. Of them, 14,400 – 36 per cent – were sent home with just advice on treating and managing their symptoms.
Dr Amanda Doyle, chief clinical officer at Blackpool CCG, said: “These figures show the demands and pressures which our A&E department faces. We aren’t asking people to avoid A&E when it is necessary, but to think carefully about when it is and isn’t appropriate.”
The Vic was inspected by the CQC in January last year following the damning 2013 report by NHS chief Sir Bruce Keogh, which criticised the hospital’s high death rates.
The latest report noted the death rate is falling, but the Vic needed to improve in four out of eight areas inspected.
The trust said in November it achieved the 90 per cent safe staffing level threshold overall.
It invested £1.5m in nursing staff since July 2013 and hired more than 200 nurses last year. Of the overseas recruits, most come from Spain and Portugal.
The trust said a further 65 new nurses and 35 healthcare assistants are set to start by the end of March.