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25 October 2021

How the number of NHS beds in England has halved

The total number of hospital beds has fallen from 300,000 to 141,000 over the last 30 years.

By Polly Bindman

The total number of available hospital beds in England has decreased steadily over the past 30 years, according to data from NHS England. 

As we enter the winter months, with Covid-19 cases having already surpassed 50,000 a day and 5.7 million people waiting for NHS treatment, the impact of a bed shortage will be felt more acutely than ever.

The data shows that the total number of NHS hospital beds in England has fallen from just under 300,000 in 1987-88 to around 141,00 in 2019-20. 

While most other advanced healthcare systems have similarly reduced bed numbers in recent years, the UK has fewer acute beds relative to its population than many comparable health systems. For example, in 2017, Germany had 8 available beds per 1,000 people, whereas France had six and the UK had just 2.5. 

This is according to a report published last year by the King’s Fund, which makes sense of these declining numbers. It notes that changes to government policy provide some explanation for the reduction, as patients with learning disabilities and mental illness have been moved from hospitals into community care. 

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Nevertheless, the number of beds for general and acute patients has fallen by 33 per cent in the past 30 years – from 180,889 in 1987-98, to around ​​120,794 in 2020-21 – mainly due to closures of beds for long-term elderly care. The King’s Fund report states that the lack of available hospital beds can also be linked to longer waiting times for treatment. 

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As NHS England advises caution when comparing historic numbers with post-pandemic figures, 2021 data has been excluded. 

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