THE NHS has faced its ‘worst winter’ in years, a union boss has said.

Glenn Harrison, lead convenor for public service union UNISON, said ‘he had never known it so bad’ in his 16 years working in the NHS.

The Hyndburn councillor was speaking as winter pressures have led to extra pressures on hospital emergency departments in Lancashire.

The winter crisis has seen thee North West Ambulance Service declare the second-highest level of alert, indicating they are facing ‘severe pressure’.

Hospital trusts in Lancashire were also among the worst-performing in the country over the festive period for ambulance delays.

Nationally, there has also been a sharp rise in flu cases this week, with 18-year-old Bethany Walker, from Applecross in Wester Ross, Scotland dying after catching the flu virus.

Mr Harrison said: “ Every year the cold weather comes, we see a rise in the elderly, infirm becoming ill and the recent epidemic of Aussie Flu has made things even more difficult.

“This is the worst winter in years and I’ve never seen it bad in 16 years of working in the NHS. More money is needed.”

East Lancashire’s patients’ champion Russ McLean warned people to stay away from A&E unless ‘absolutely necessary’.

He said: “The situation is scary and I’d urge people with flu to stay away from A&E and GPs to stop its spread, and phone their pharmacist and surgery.”

Meanwhile, North West Ambulance Service said it is currently on Resource Escalation Action Plans (REAP) level three (severe pressure) in response to an ‘increase in activity.’

Ambulance trusts operate four alert levels known as REAP, ranging from level one, indicating a steady state, to level four for extreme pressure.

It said going from level two to level three enables it to put measures in place to help manage the demand.

John Bannister, director of operations for East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust said they had been experiencing 'immense pressure' with a high number of very sick patients seeking emergency medical attention.

He said: “Each winter there are extra pressures on the NHS, and each year we prepare thoroughly to manage during these busy periods.

“Our resilience plans – which are continuously updated to reflect new and changing circumstances, including flu – are carried out with our health and social care partners to ensure we contribute positively to the health economy winter care plan.

“Like other trusts across the country, we have, at times, been experiencing immense pressure with a high number of very sick patients seeking emergency medical attention.

"This is expected to continue throughout the winter."  

Karen Partington, chair of Lancashire Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust, advised at risk groups including over 65s, those who are pregnant and anyone with a long-term medical condition to get their flu jab.

She said: "Anyone with a long term medical condition, or who is pregnant or over 65, should contact their GP if they think they have flu, as the risk of complications in these patient groups is increased.

"The flu vaccine is the best protection against flu, and there’s still time to get it.

"Anyone in these patient groups who hasn’t yet taken up the offer of a free flu jab should contact their GP practice as soon as possible to protect themselves and their families.”

An NHS England spokesman said it had seen 'rising levels of flu and record numbers of 111 calls and hospital admissions'.

The spokesman said: "Despite the clear pressure on the NHS in December, we managed to hold A&E performance at the same level as last January. We also saw the best seasonal performance on NHS Delayed Transfers of Care in four years, and went into winter with cancer and routine surgery waits both showing improvements."

A Department of health and social care spokesman said:"We know the NHS is extremely busy, which is why it was given top priority in the recent budget with an extra £2.8bn allocated over the next two years — and despite the extra pressure that comes with winter, including rising flu levels, hardworking staff treated 55,328 people within four hours every single day in December - 1,272 more each day than in the same month the previous year.

"The Government also supported the NHS this winter with an additional £437million of funding.”