More than 1,100 beds have been shut in the past week in the hospitals in England because of a serious outbreak of the norovirus winter vomiting bug. NHS officials are urging people with the virus not to go to work and parents not to send children with it to school, until 48 hours after symptoms have gone.
That is almost double the number that were closed for the same reason this time last year. The number of cases of norovirus in mid-November was 28% higher than the average for the time of year over the past five years. Prof Steve Powis, NHS England’s medical director, said: “We’ve already seen a number of hospitals and schools affected by norovirus, and unfortunately instances like these are likely to rise over the coming weeks.” Southampton general hospital has been trying to contain an outbreak of the highly contagious bug for more than a month. It initially had to close 32 beds in five wards, and now has one ward closed to new admissions, as well as bays closed on two others.
The hospital moved quickly to curb the spread of the infection by isolating it, performing “enhanced cleaning” on its A&E unit and advising patients and visitors to stay away if they had the bug. A spokesman for University Hospital Southampton NHS foundation trust said norovirus had been brought into the hospital by patients. Royal Berkshire hospital in Reading has shut four wards in an attempt to contain the bug’s spread. Prof Nick Phin, the deputy director of Public Health England’s national infection service, said: “Cases of norovirus are at higher levels than we would expect to see at this time of year, although this is not unprecedented.”
The outbreaks present extra difficulties for an NHS bracing itself for what many doctors and health experts say could be the service’s toughest winter for years, especially as hospitals have the fewest beds on record. Several hospitals have come under so much pressure in recent weeks, before winter has officially begun, that they have been forced to go on “black alert” and ask patients to seek help at other nearby NHS facilities. NHS chiefs have asked the public to do everything they can to reduce the spread of norovirus, for example by staying off work or school for at least 48 hours after the bug strikes, washing hands with soap and water after using the toilet, and not visiting hospitals or GP surgeries if they have it, instead seeking help from the NHS 111 advice line.
Flu has also begun circulating, according to figures from Public Health England. Its surveillance report for the week to last Sunday says five hospitals had an outbreak in the week, and the rate of people catching it had risen over the course of the week from 2.85 cases per 100,000 people to 4.31. The Royal College of Nursing said the surge in norovirus meant the number of available hospital beds was reaching “unsustainably low levels”. Helen Donovan, the RCN’s professional lead for public health, said: “Nursing staff also often fall victim to norovirus outbreaks, which then exacerbates existing staffing problems, as affected staff shouldn’t report for duty until they’ve been symptom-free for 48 hours.
“If they return to work too early, staff risk unknowingly passing on the illness, as they remain infectious. Norovirus presents a big challenge to nursing staff in winter, who are already working in a challenging environment with one in 10 posts vacant.”