The NHS crisis in five charts

Unless you’ve been truly hibernating so far this year, you will have heard that thousands of NHS operations have been cancelled. But what is the NHS winter crisis? Here are five charts that can shed some light.

The number of cancelled operations is on the rise

Hospitals across the country are having to cancel elective operations. These are the operations that are planned in advance, and they are  cancelled because of an increase in emergencies which take up staff time and hospital space.

The data on cancelled operations is published quarterly, so we don’t know the number of cancellations for this month, but we can look at the data historically.


As we can see, quarter four (January to March) has a high rate of cancellations each year. That’s to be expected, because there is a surge in people needing medical care during winter. But we can also see that the rate has been steadily rising.

The impact of flu

One of the reasons for the increase in A&E patients is flu. Though it’s important to note that the increase in flu levels aren’t the reason for the crisis, they just accentuate it.

The number of hospital beds is going down

One of the reasons these operations are being cancelled is that there aren’t enough beds. But why aren’t there enough?

Over the last 30 years, the number of hospital beds in England has more than halved. Since 2012 there has been a drop of 12%, from an average of 144,455 beds available overnight to 127,614.

There are different numbers of beds available for different purposes too. While the number of maternity beds has dropped by 3% since 2011, the number of beds for patients with mental illness has dropped by 22%, and the number for those with learning disabilities has dropped by 55%.

This trend is partly due to medical advances and policies that aim to support people outside of hospital, but considering the current shortage in beds, the reduction in beds does not seem justified.

UK beds compared to other European countries

So, how does the UK compare to other countries? The OECD keeps track of how many hospital beds each country has for every 1,000 people. You can compare them all on their website but let’s compare the UK to a couple of our neighbours.

As you can see, we don’t fare too well compared to our German or Polish cousins.

The link to social care

The NHS bed crisis is also related to social care – as many issues in the NHS are. Lots of patients need a social care plan for when they leave hospital. If that isn’t in place, they can’t be discharged.

Different regions have different rates of delays in discharge; you can see how bad the delays are in your area on the map below, which shows the rates of delays, per 100,000 people.

It only shows data from England as the systems differ in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where devolved governments are responsible for health and social care systems.

As we can see, the North East had the lowest proportion with only 2.1 delayed transfers of care from hospital per 100,000 people, because of social care, or social care and the NHS jointly.

The West Midlands had the highest proportion, with 10 delayed transfers of care from hospital per 100,000 population being attributable to adult social care or jointly to social care and the NHS.

Not the full story

This isn’t the whole story when it comes to the NHS though. It’s important to look at everything the NHS achieves, too.

Every 36 hours the NHS treats one million patients (according to data from the NHS Confederation).

Over 80% of those who use the NHS say they have a good experience (according to the British Social Attitudes survey, reported by the King’s Fund), and more than 63% of the public strongly support the NHS.

This rate of public support and productivity has been hard won by NHS staff, says UNISON head of health Sara Gorton.

It is also the result of financial investments made in the decade between 2000 and 2010. “The last 10 years of under-funding, with no let-up promised anytime soon, is extremely damaging,” says Ms Gorton.

“In the autumn budget, the Chancellor agreed to give the NHS only half of what independent enquiries had said was needed to maintain the high standards we have come to expect.”