Hospital Beds in NHS England

The Guardian overstate the reduction in NHS England beds.

In November 2019, The Guardian published that NHS England have cut “more than 17,000 beds”, to a “record low”.

These claims makes an unfair comparisons, overstating the reduction. That statistic has been reused in two popular Facebook posts.

Beds and beyond

NHS England collects quarterly figures from all NHS organisations that operate beds. These beds can be open overnight or day-only. Bed counts exclude cots for well babies. The statistics exclude beds that are not under the care of an NHS consultant doctor.

Available overnight beds appears to be stabilising. (Image: NHS England)

This latter exclusion was a change in methods enacted in July 2010. Before that, non-consultant care beds were included. Statistics before this change are not comparable to those after.

Figures before 2010 are not comparable. (Image: Full Fact)

The Guardian article makes an unfair comparison here:

The 127,225 figure is the smallest number of beds available in acute hospitals, maternity centres and units specialising in the care of patients with mental health problems and learning disabilities since records began in 1987/88.

The number of overnight NHS England beds has generally been falling. There have been marginal increases in the number of day-only beds.

Day-only beds have increased by about 1,000 since 2010/11 Q1. (Image: NHS England)

Seasonality and occupancy

There is an issue of seasonality too. Bed availability and occupancy statistics are not adjusted for seasons.

The ‘17,000+’ figure comes from comparing NHS England overnight beds in 2010/11 Q1 to 2019/20 Q2.

Since statistics for the third quarter have been published, we can calculate:

  • Q1 difference between 2010/11 and 2019/20: 15,834;
  • Q2 difference: 14,253;
  • Q3 difference: 13,301.

The 2017 Full Fact article highlights overnight bed occupancy levels have also declined. In 2010/11 Q1, patients filled 122,551 overnight beds in NHS England. In 2019/20 Q1, that figure was 113,189.

The occupancy rate generally rises. (Image: Full Fact)

In those two quarters, the occupancy rate increased from 84.9% to 88.0%.

Social media users then repeat and retweet these flawed claims. During the COVID-19 crisis, two people with large audiences have re-used the ‘17,000+’ figure.

Thomas G. Clark (Another Angry Voice) and Peter Stefanovic (CWU) used the figure in popular posts. They cited the statistic without qualification or clarification. Now, users have shared this figure thousands of times.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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