General election 2019: Have 17,000 NHS beds been cut in England?

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After a row over a sick four-year-old boy sleeping on a hospital floor due to a shortage of beds, the Labour Party has claimed 17,000 NHS beds have been cut since the Conservatives came to power.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth made the claim on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, as part of the party’s bid to keep the NHS at the forefront of the general election campaign. But was he right?

Claim: Labour says 17,000 NHS beds have been cut since the Conservatives came to power.

Reality Check verdict: There are 17,000 fewer NHS England beds since 2010. About half of these are general hospital beds – there has also been a significant reduction in mental health beds. This, though, is part of a long-term trend which has seen a decline in the numbers of beds since the 1980s.

According to NHS England figures, there were 144,455 overnight NHS beds available between April-June 2010, falling to 127,225 in July-September 2019.

In other words, a drop of about 17,000.

The Conservatives say that the number of beds increased by 2,000 last month. However, it’s usual practice for the NHS to make more beds available during the winter, so you would expect a small increase at this time of year anyway.

If you just focus on an April-to-April comparison, the drop is about 16,000. More than half (about 9,000 beds) are general hospital beds caring for patients with physical needs and problems. The other 7,000 are maternity centres and units specialising in the care of patients with mental health problems and learning disabilities.

Number of available overnight NHS England beds

April 2010 – September 2019

Despite Labour claiming that the Conservatives have overseen a bed-cutting programme, it’s worth noting that the number of NHS beds has been in decline since the 1980s, as certain types of care shift into the community.

In 1987-88, the first year data was available, there were 297,364 overnight NHS beds in England. And it’s been falling almost every year since.

Some of the fall in bed numbers can be attributed to more people having operations on the day, which don’t require an overnight hospital stay.

It’s been a long-standing NHS policy to reduce bed numbers by treating patients more quickly.

In addition, more people, including mental health and older patients, are being treated at home or in the community than in the past.

But some people are now warning about NHS bed capacity.

Recent figures show that hospital waiting times are at their worst-ever level.

And in June, the head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, said that bed closures needed to be reversed to meet growing demand.

Leo Ewbank, from the King’s Fund think tank, shares this view.

“Beds are clearly presenting a real challenge to the NHS at the moment,” he says.

“But just increasing bed stock is difficult without the associated workforce and that’s another key challenge. Hospitals might want to increase bed numbers, but without the additional staff to care for people it would just dilute the quality of care everyone receives, so there isn’t an easy answer.”

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