Published: 20/12/2001, Volume III, No.5786 Page 8

A website offering trusts details of private hospitals with spare acute capacity has been launched by the Department of Health to help the NHS meet demand pressures.

It went online last week and gives information on bed availability, location and clinical specialty over a three-month period - though booking procedures will be made the normal way, under the 'usual' terms and conditions.

The Independent Healthcare Association welcomed the move.

A spokesperson said: 'All the major private providers are involved.

And though it has just started, we certainly believe it is significant because it shows the importance of the independent sector to the NHS since last year's concordat.'

News of the site came as the DoH released its progress report on emergency pressures.

With the DoH's decision to scrap the winter planning conference and winter planning circular this year, following ministers' claims that for the NHS 'winter begins in July and ends in June', the report is more an audit of the steps already taken rather than a battle plan.

It says£50m has already been invested in care for an additional 27,000 patients over the next few months - with two-thirds of these patients 'having an operation within the private sector'.

And with figures based on November's bed census, it also says general and acute NHS beds have increased by 1,225 from a year ago, along with an additional 198 critical care beds.

NHS Direct - averaging 100,000 calls a week - is expected to receive around 500,000 calls over Christmas and the new year, double last year's number.

The ever-greater reliance on the independent sector is also highlighted - the NHS commissioned 29,000 elective cases between April and September 2001 in a bid to help demand pressures on A&E departments.