Health minister Philip Dunne has been criticised for appearing to suggest that patients denied a bed by the unfolding NHS winter crisis should sit down instead.
Mr Dunne, who is responsible for NHS performance, was speaking in the House of Commons in response to urgent questions about the health service, which has postponed thousands of operations to help it cope with winter pressure.
Responding to a question from Labour MP Tracy Brabin about a constituent who photographed patients sleeping on the floor in hospital, he said: “The honourable lady will have heard last week the apology from the Secretary of State to those patients who are having operations postponed, and I absolutely am prepared to apologise today to those patients who are not able to be treated as quickly as we would like them to be.
“There are seats available in most hospitals where beds are not available, and I can’t comment individually on what happened in her case, but I agree with her it is not acceptable.”
Many hospitals are facing bed shortages, with some operating at close to 100% capacity, and thousands of patients have endured long waits to be handed over on ambulances, or in hospital corridors.
Mr Dunne, who was standing in for Jeremy Hunt, who was in Downing Street discussing his role with the Prime Minister, also became the first minister to concede that the NHS is facing a crisis.
“We have a crisis in winter of some sort more or less every year,” he said.
Mr Dunne was criticised by doctors’ groups and political opponents.
“The seats comment sounds flippant and belittling of the problem that exists,” said Dr Nick Scriven, the president of the Society for Acute Medicine.
“If that is what he truly thinks, it shows a worrying lack of appreciation of reality in our emergency departments and acute medical units.”
Labour shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “This is an appalling and ignorant remark from a minister entirely out of touch with the reality of the NHS winter crisis.
“Placing sick patients in chairs because of acute bed shortages is clearly not acceptable in the 21st Century.
“And yet with numerous trusts this winter at times reporting 100% bed occupancy, hospitals simply cannot cope and are being forced into these intolerable situations.
“Patients and staff are currently facing an unprecedented winter crisis. Instead of worrying about reshuffles, the prime minister must urgently sort this mess out.”
Mr Dunne later released a statement which said: “I responded to a question in the House of Commons about Pinderfields Hospital in Yorkshire, which had earlier indicated chairs were available for those patients who were pictured on the floor.
“As the Prime Minister and Secretary of State both have done, I too have apologised for any cases where care has fallen below the high standards we expect.”
His boss, Mr Hunt emerged from Downing Street having been told he will remain as Health Secretary and having added social care to his brief, meaning the two areas are overseen by the same department for the first time since the 1990s.
Downing Street confirmed that as a consequence of the change, under which he will be known as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the planned Green Paper on social care will move from the Cabinet Office to health.
There is widespread approval for health and social care to be considered in concert as the issues they face are interlinked.
Many of those in hospital are there because of a shortage of the social care provision that would allow them to be cared for at home.
Around 20% of those currently admitted have been there for more than three weeks.