Chart of the week: Covid-19 and the pressure on NHS critical care beds

Each week we present analysis of data in chart form to illustrate some key issues and invite discussion. With signs that we are finally seeing a decrease in the numbers being admitted to hospital with Covid-19, John Appleby and Jenny Davies take a look at the number of critical care beds that have been used to treat patients this winter - and how the health service has been forced to continually expand the number of beds despite limited numbers of staff available to manage patients.

Chart of the week

Published: 04/02/2021

This winter the number of patients in hospital with Covid-19 has reached its highest level since the start of the pandemic. All parts of the health service have been under considerable pressure, especially critical care.

The NHS has greatly increased critical care capacity to meet demand from increasing numbers of patients with Covid-19, and is working well above usual capacity. At the start of December 2020, the number of occupied adult critical care beds was lower than the number of available beds in December 2019. But by 24 January 2021, 148% of beds were occupied relative to the number of available beds on the same day in January 2020 – almost 1.5 times the capacity of the same time last year.

Increasing the number of beds does not in itself increase capacity – these extra beds need to be staffed. Although staff from other services have been drafted in to intensive care units, the large increase in patients has meant that units are having to work with fewer staff per patient.

Redeploying staff to intensive care units, and coping with Covid-19 patients, has meant that non-Covid services have been affected. Planned surgeries have been postponed across the country, with reports of cancellations to urgent children’s operations and cancer treatments, adding to a growing backlog of elective treatment.

The number of patients being admitted to hospital with Covid-19 is now starting to fall, so critical care occupancy is likely to begin decreasing. However, with occupancy so much higher than in previous years, the pressure on health services remains.