• Dozens of intensive care patients transferred between hospitals every day
  • Some patients transferred to hospitals hundreds of miles away, with South West often considered best option
  • Fears of critical care being overwhelmed nationally but “there is still time”

Dozens of patients are being transferred between intensive care units every week as covid pressure mounts on hospitals, HSJ has been told.

This includes multiple patients transferred from London and the South East as well as parts of the East of England, where many hospitals are well over their baseline ICU capacity, into other regions — a very rare occurrence outside of the pandemic.

The Intensive Care Society told HSJ that at least 10 patients per day were now being transferred between hospitals to where there is capacity, and that this was happening in nearly every region.

Most of these patients are transferred from and to hospitals within the same NHS region, but a smaller number are also being transferred between regions. HSJ has previously reported that systems were considering sending patients from the South East and London as far as Yorkshire and the South West. Typically, transfers of this kind happen very rarely.

Hospitals in the South West are seen in critical care networks as the most likely recipients at present, as there is more covid pressure in the North of England and Midlands — although parts of the South West, such as Dorset, are now also seeing rapid growth in covid admissions.

Stephen Webb, Intensive Care Society president, who works in the East of England, told HSJ: “The problem with sending patients to the North is that those units were really badly affected earlier in this wave, and they could be hit with the new variant. It’s a very tricky situation.

“If the rate of increase [of infections] continues as it is, I’m much more fearful we may get to saturation point for ICUs, but we have still got a bit of time. We do have capacity in other parts of the country, but not a lot.

“Currently, in the East of England, South East and London, many intensive care units are already saturated. This is where we’re seeing daily export of patients.”

Some regions have set up dedicated teams to transfer patients between ICUs, he added.

Alison Pittard, Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine dean, said transfers between ICUs are “a way of ensuring that all patients get the care that they need”.

She said: “When local mutual aid is exhausted then it is vital to look further afield and, again, it is a balancing act.”