But statistics show that when the ambulance strikes began yesterday, occupancy levels remained stubbornly high at 96 percent.
Meanwhile, NHS 111 helplines appear overwhelmed, with almost half of calls abandoned, amid growing demand, in the week ending December 18.
Statistics for the same week show 721,301 calls to 111, almost 60% more than in the same week of 2021. It is understood that the increase in demand is partly due to parents concerned about symptoms of strep A.
Over the past two weeks, call levels have been the highest ever recorded, excluding the first few weeks of the pandemic.
Last week, 48 percent of callers gave up out of frustration, figures show.
Health leaders fear that in the coming days the NHS will face unprecedented pressure, with a ‘rebound’ effect like those who tried to avoid putting a burden on health services during strikes introduce oneself.
Hospitals typically get emptier in the run-up to Christmas, with a huge effort to send as many patients home as possible.
But efforts to discharge patients this week were locked down for a second strike by nurses on Tuesdayahead of Wednesday’s paramedic strikes.
As a result, there is concern that thousands more elderly people who are well enough to be discharged will remain stuck in the hospital as the pressure mounts.
On Wednesday, Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: “We are concerned that people are not seeking help when they should. We saw this in lockdown. We are particularly concerned about a rebound effect, which means that things could be much worse in the days to come.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “The concern is that this is just the beginning, and that the full impact of today’s strike, along with the first two nursing strikes, will not just be felt today but also in the days and weeks to come. Their fear is that the risk to patients will intensify with further planned strikes and no sign of resolution of the disputes.”
“We cannot afford to let this turn into a prolonged winter of industrial action and a disruptive war of attrition,” he said.
The figures, reflecting the week before the paramedic strikes, show a record number of delayed ambulance deliveries, with 40.5 percent forced to wait at least half an hour outside emergency units, up from 33.7 percent of the previous week.
The hardest-hit region was the Southwest, with 67.5 percent of ambulances dispatched to A&E facing such delays.
Statistics also show that the NHS is increasingly affected by staff sickness, with an average of 60,583 staff sickness absences every day last week, almost a fifth more than last month.
In addition to the increasing number of beds occupied by flu patients, high bed occupancy was affected by the 13,697 patients on average each day who were stuck in the hospital despite being medically fit to leave.
Professor Sir Stephen Powis, the NHS’s national medical director, said: “In addition to the impact of industrial action last week, it is clear that the NHS is facing enormous pressure ahead of Christmas with the number of flu cases rising in hospital and intensive care. week-over-week, plus significant increases in staff illness rates and near-record demand for services like 111.
“Despite this, NHS staff continue to deliver a significant amount for patients, deal with near-record 111 calls and continue to make progress on Covid-19 delays.
“With more industry actions scheduled for next week, there will be disruption, but we urge the public to continue to use services wisely by continuing to call 999 for life-threatening emergencies, use 111 online for other health conditions and take sensible steps to keep yourself and others safe.
“The NHS has extensively prepared for winter with more beds, additional call managers and the expansion of fall response services, control centers and respiratory centres, but with flu hospitalizations and covid cases on the rise, the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to get vaccinated if you are eligible.”