THE adult critical care unit at the Wirral University Teaching Hospital NHS Trust was over maximum safe capacity at the end of June, according to NHS England.

Figures show that 16 of the 18 critical care beds in the unit were occupied.

Guidelines recommend that units run at no more than 85% capacity - any higher and they say patient safety could be compromised.

The Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine (FICM) has warned that many units across the country are either experiencing or approaching a 'capacity crisis'.

There are two types of critical care units. Intensive care units (ICUs) are for patients who cannot breathe on their own, have life-threatening conditions or multiple organ failure. High-dependency units (HDUs), for patients recovering from major operations or who have a single failing organ.

FICM Dean Dr Carl Waldmann said: "Doctors working at the coalface are concerned that eventually they may be unable to provide the quality of care that their patients deserve.

"Where no beds are available, this can lead to cancelled operations or patients being transferred at their sickest to hospitals away from their loved ones."

"No intensive care doctor is willing to compromise on patient safety," he added. "But without specific interventions to alleviate the pressure on the system, the strain on intensive care staff and their resources will continue to put patients at risk."

In a study published in March this year, the FICM reported that a majority of critical care units said they were struggling due to nursing staff shortages.

Their survey found that 60% intensive care units said they did not have a full complement of nurses, and that 40% of units said they had to close beds on at least a weekly basis due to lack of staff.

Beds that are closed due to lack of staff are not counted as available in NHS figures, leading some of the doctors surveyed to suggest that official figures underestimate the extent of the problem.

Chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) consultant committee Dr Rob Harwood said that critical care units work hard to keep occupancy at a lower level, to allow them to accept unpredictable emergency admissions.

He said: "If units are down to the last couple of beds then critical care consultants have to start making very difficult decisions about who to admit."

"These pressures can no longer be blamed on the winter," he added. "The NHS has been starved of resources over the last 8-10 years and we still expect it to deliver the goods."

Dr Harwood said that improving the availability of critical care beds would involve a significant investment in recruiting and retaining more staff to run them.

He said: "Without this, the NHS will continue to fail to meet demand, patients will continue to suffer unnecessarily, and the current workforce will be stretched even more thinly."