Small numbers of urgent operations are cancelled every month in hospitals, usually either because the patient is too unwell to undergo surgery or because the hospital is short of beds or staff shortages mean the procedure cannot go ahead. Hospitals which have cancelled unusually high numbers of such cases recently all cited lack of intensive care beds as the key reason. An estimated 55,000 non-urgent operations, such as cataract removals and hernia repairs, were cancelled in December and January as a result of NHS England’s edicts to hospitals.

Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, which represents acute medical specialists in hospitals, said: “The cancellation of life-saving or life-prolonging operations is an extremely serious event that was not sanctioned in advice from NHS England’s national emergency pressures panel regarding winter pressures. This will have major impacts on patients and could be a risk to their lives.

“The stress for these patients must be unimaginable. To be told you need major potentially lifesaving operations and then have them cancelled, against what is in national guidance, must be horrendous.”

Lisa Betteridge, from Oxford, has used her Twitter feed in recent weeks to highlight the impact on her family of surgery of the four cancellations of her brain tumour surgery since 22 December. She has now been given a fifth date for the procedure. Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, where Betteridge is to have her surgery, said it had cancelled eight cancer and 16 heart operations before the day of surgery since December because of a shortage of ICU beds. It also postponed 10 more heart operations in January “to ensure our staff could prioritise those patients requiring emergency treatment and care”, in line with NHS England advice.

University Hospitals Birmingham, one of the NHS’s biggest trusts, has cancelled 34 cancer operations, 53 cardiac procedures and four aortic aneurysm repairs so far this winter.

Dr Dave Rosser, its medical director, said that when the trust faced any increase in the number of emergency medical patients who needed intensive care, including those with flu, it had to make patients with other serious conditions, including liver cancer, wait for their surgery.

“Unfortunately this too often leads to the patients requiring these complex operations being cancelled due to a lack of intensive care beds,” he said.