A FORMER consultant at a leading North-east hospital claims the strain of working on casualty wards is driving so many staff away that A&E has become "a sinking ship".

Documentary film crews spent a week on the accident and emergency department of University Hospital of North Tees, in Stockton, where staff revealed the pressures of meeting "unachievable" targets to see patients within four hours.

Alex Muirhead, who was an A&E consultant at the hospital but left in December to work as a GP in Hartlepool, said: "A&E is a sinking ship and, unless things change dramatically, it will sink because its not a popular place to work now".

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The BBC Panorama programme, to be screened tonight, claimed that delays in discharging patients from hospital while they wait for social care to be arranged are costing the NHS in England about 100m every year.

Professor Keith Willett, NHS England's director for acute care, said that cuts in local authority budgets are making things worse.

Prof Willett said: "There's bound to be a consequence. Social care and local authorities have taken a significant reduction. We need to join the services up and one of the key things we have to do is to bring the doctors, the nurses, the social workers back together.

Its expensive for the NHS and its wrong for patients to keep them in high acuity health care environments when they'd be much better off at home being supported in their own environments.

Prof Willet also condemned the target culture within the NHS as too crude.

Things have moved on, he said. When it came in it was highly effective; now its too blunt".

Alan Foster, chief executive of North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, told the programme it was important for staff to remember that behind every target is a patient.

Patients come first, he said. We don't want people to wait four hours in A&E.

"If you or I were going to the A&E department, wed want to be seen quickly so although we have that target, its not the be-all and end-all.

Dr Clifford Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine, which represents A&E doctors nationally, said that recruiting and retaining enough emergency staff is a huge problem all over the country and warned that there could come a time when there will be no doctors to treat accident and emergency patients.

He said: For the last three years, we've recruited only 50 per cent of the registrars into emergency medicine. This means there's a lack of about 350-375 registrars around the country that equates to three quarters of a million patient consultations per year that cant happen because those doctors don't exist.

My real fear if we don't do something about recruitment and retention in emergency medicine is that you will turn up in an ambulance to an emergency department and there will be no doctors there to see you.

Panorama calculated the £100m figure using NHS England data from 245 trusts over the past two years.

* x-ref p41 Charity volunteers to help relieve pressure in Darlington Memorial Hospitals A&E