Fears of an NHS at breaking point deepened this week as more than 20 overcrowded England hospitals issued black alerts, which means they feel they are unable to guarantee patient safety. 

Cancer operations were cancelled, children treated in adult wards and a birthing centre closed as sudden influxes of patients left at least 23 hospital trusts unable to cope.   

The series of top-level alerts - issued by NHS acute trusts when hospitals feel they have become “unable to deliver comprehensive care [and] there is increased potential for patient care and safety to be compromised” – came as the prime minister, Theresa May, dismissed claims of a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in the NHS as “irresponsible and overblown”. 

Frontline doctors have for some time been issuing about patient safety being at risk as many A&E departments find themselves overwhelmed by demand. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine, which represents doctors in emergency care, said a high proportion of A&E departments were falling short of the four-hour treatment target, introduced by Labour in 2004. 

The college believes one in four A&E units are at risk of offering poor care, citing delays in assessing patients and administering pain relief. 

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt sparked controversy by suggesting the four-hour treatment target should exclude people who waste time by presenting with minor ailments. 

He told MPs that hospitals may have to cancel operations and outpatient appointments so that staff can concentrate on the sickest patients. GPs could also be drafted in to help hospitals cope with record demand for medical care. 

A recent investigation conducted by Professor Sir Brian Jarman found that hospital occupancy rates in England have been too high since 2002 and the declining availability of hospital beds is playing a significant role in the number of patient deaths. 

“This situation is a mess,” said Gwen Kirby-Dent, senior clinical negligence solicitor at Thompsons Solicitors. “It’s time for the government to wake up to the scale of the problem facing frontline health services across the UK and take decisive action to solve these mounting problems that are putting lives at risk. 

“A shortage in hospital beds has been a problem in the NHS for several years but to see things have declined to such a degree that more than 20 hospital trusts have taken the highly unusual steps of issuing a black alert is deeply worrying. 

“How much worse do things have to get before the government accepts more funding is needed? The number of preventable deaths in the UK is appalling. Families are experiencing unnecessary heartbreak because the government is dragging its heels. It’s time to listen to frontline NHS staff.”