The number of patients on hospital wards in England has been at unsafe levels at nine in 10 NHS trusts this winter, BBC analysis shows.
To minimise the risk of infections and delays in getting treatment, hospitals are meant to have no more than 85% of beds occupied.
But the analysis showed 137 out of 152 hospital trusts have been above that level since the start of December.
NHS bosses said hospitals had major problems discharging frail patients.
They said a lack of care in the community meant they were having to keep patients on wards.
A poll by Ipsos MORI for the BBC has suggested three-quarters of those surveyed in the UK want to see charges increased for people coming from abroad as a way of raising more money for the NHS.
Meanwhile, it has been announced that from April this year, foreign patients could be refused operations unless they cover their costs in advance in England.
Hospitals will be expected to check upfront whether an individual is eligible for free non-urgent care by asking for ID.
One experienced hospital boss described some of the weeks this winter as the “worst” he had seen in his career.
Meanwhile, patients have been contacting the BBC to report the chaos they have experienced in overcrowded hospitals.
This includes long waits on trolleys for a bed to become free, queues of patients blocking A&E departments, overworked staff on wards and operations being cancelled at the last minute.
‘Mum’s undignified death’
Richard Taylor, 55, from Liverpool, says he was left devastated after watching the “undignified” death of his mum Sheila in January.
She had cancer, but her local cancer centre was full and so was unable to give her end-of-life care.
She was taken to Aintree Hospital but spent 13 hours on a trolley waiting for a bed before being admitted. A week later she died at the age of 78.
“The nursing staff were fantastic, but there is only so much they can do,” Mr Taylor said.
“It was awful watching someone die in this extremely undignified way. If she was an animal, they would have put her down – she was starving and dehydrated.
“The NHS is a great thing, but it is under the hammer.”
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Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said the bed shortages were “extremely worrying”.
“Above 85% and the risks start rising and once you get into the 90% it is significant. You don’t get this in other countries and it just shows the pressure hospitals are under,” he added.
The analysis, which looked at week day occupancy levels from 1 December to 22 January, showed that over 60 hospital trusts had rates of above 95%.
One of those was Basildon and Thurrock. Its interim managing director, Tom Abell, said it had been an “exceptionally busy” winter.
He said the bed shortage was also to do with the numbers coming into hospital as well as the problems discharging patients.
“Previously it would be unusual to see more than 350 people in our A&E in one day but this is now the norm. We’ve had several days where more than 450 people were treated.”
Andrew Foster, who runs three hospitals for the Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Trust, said the start to the year has been “the worst I’ve known”.
“It started from Boxing Day onwards,” he said. “Cubicles in A&E were full, we had ambulance staff queuing in the corridors and we could not get patients out of hospital. The whole system backed up.”
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A spokesman for NHS England acknowledged the situation was impacting on the way hospitals were performing.
He said “the single most helpful change” would be to tackle the problem of delayed discharges, which is caused by a lack of available services in the community to take care of frail patients when their medical care had finished.
Without that support being provided – either from council care teams or district nursing – these patients cannot be discharged.
None of the other UK nations could provide the BBC with bed occupancy data this winter.
In the Ipsos MORI poll for the BBC of 1,033 adults, 40% who wanted to see income tax increased as a way of increasing funding for the NHS and 37% backed charging for some services.
England’s Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “We have no problem with overseas visitors using our NHS – as long as they make a fair contribution, just as the British taxpayers does.”
Read more at BBC.co.uk