Hundreds of operations cancelled at Bedford Hospital at the last minute

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These figures were for cancellations on the day of the appointment or after the patient had arrived at hospital

Hundreds of operations were cancelled at the last minute by Bedfordshire Hospitals Trust last year, figures show.

The British Medical Association called the tens of thousands of cancellations across the country the sign of a "creaking" NHS.

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Figures from NHS England show 790 operations were cancelled by Bedfordshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in 2023. The trust runs both runs Bedford Hospital and Luton and Dunstable University Hospital.

Bedford HospitalBedford Hospital
Bedford Hospital

This was slightly fewer than the 793 operations cancelled the year before and down from 873 in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic.

These were cancellations on the day of the appointment or after the patient had arrived at hospital – rather than operations rearranged in advance.

NHS guidance says this can happen for a variety of reasons, including surgeons becoming unavailable, emergency cases needing to be dealt with, or administrative errors.

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The NHS has a target of rebooking operations within 28 days of a cancellation – but 5.7% of cancellations did not hit that target at Bedfordshire Hospitals Trust.

In 2019, 3.1% were not rebooked in that timeframe.

Across England, the number of cancelled operations for non-clinical reasons has dropped by more than 11,000 compared to before the pandemic – there were 75,120 in 2023, down from 86,364 in 2019.

Despite this, far fewer patients are being rebooked within the 28-day target. In 2019, 7,573 (8.8%) did not receive a new appointment in the same month, compared to 17,995 (24%) last year.

The British Medical Association said with "better planning and greater capacity" these cancellations could be avoided.

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Professor Phillip Banfield, BMA council chair, said the figures were signs of a "creaking NHS" which cannot cope with current workloads.

However, the Patients Association called the drop in the number of cancelled operations "good news".

Rachel Power, chief executive of the organisation, said: "Having planned surgery cancelled can be very upsetting, especially for patients who have been waiting for many months for surgery."

"Where trusts are unable to reschedule surgery within the 28 days, they should be providing support and clear information to patients about what the next steps are for them."

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An NHS spokesperson said: "Since December 2022 the NHS has had to reschedule more than 1.3 million acute inpatient and outpatient appointments due to industrial action, and while staff have worked incredibly hard to reschedule these as quickly as possible, the ongoing strikes have meant the capacity to do this has been constrained."

It is possible some last-minute cancellations may have been caused by strikes if the operation was not rescheduled in time, but most operations moved due to industrial action will not appear in the above statistics.

The spokesperson continued: "Despite this, latest figures show hard working NHS staff delivered more elective activity in 2023 than in any other year since the start of the pandemic – with more than 17.3 million treated – meaning the elective waiting list has fallen for the third consecutive month in December."

Mr Banfield rejected the claim that strikes were contributing to last-cancellations, saying the BMA had "given adequate notice to trusts ahead of strike days so they can prepare and reschedule appropriately".

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He added: "Doctors are taking industrial action because we know that without valuing doctors’ skills and expertise properly, they will continue to leave the NHS. And without enough doctors, patients will continue to bear the brunt."