EMERGENCY beds made available to help the NHS cope with a flood of patients last winter are still being used because regular wards are overflowing.

Campaigners and staff bodies say the revelation shows that the pressures hospitals used to face in winter, when illnesses such as flu caused a spike in demand, are now a year-round issue.

Additional accommodation for 300 patients was required at the start of last month and many beds are still in use.

Dr Jean Turner, director of the Scotland Patients' Association and a high-profile campaigner against hospital service closures, added: "This just shows reducing the number of inpatient beds when you have an ageing population was short-sighted. The tragedy is that it is people who suffer."

The average number of available staffed beds in Scotland's acute hospitals has fallen by 1400 since 2003, to 16,503 last year.

Last winter, hospitals struggled to cope with a surge in patient numbers, and hundreds of people had to wait in A&E for more than 12 hours because there was no room on wards. Some emergency doctors described the pressure on capacity as the worst they had seen in their careers.

Most health boards have plans in place to open and staff additional beds during spikes in demand, and at the height of the problems NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde accommodated 200 extra patients.

NHS Lothian reopened the Royal Victoria Hospital, which it had mothballed last summer, to cope with demand in November.

Levels of the vomiting bug norovirus, which was often linked to the crisis, were very high at the end of last year. Although they subsequently fell, six mainland health boards were still relying on some of the extra beds at the start of May.

A total of 298 were in use, including 122 in NHS Lothian, 55 in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 44 in Ayrshire and Arran, 34 in Fife, 30 in Lanarkshire and 13 in Forth Valley.

Some areas have cut back since, with NHS GGC now operating 22 extra spaces, but NHS Lanarkshire said it still had 30 beds open.

Theresa Fyffe, Scotland director of the Royal College of Nursing, said: "It's not surprising that some health boards are being forced to keep emergency 'winter' beds open. We've been saying for some time that the traditional seasonal spikes in demand are turning into very real all-year-round pressures."

Last summer the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh raised concerns about the number of sick patients "boarding" on the wrong hospital wards due to lack of space.

Dr Neil Dewhurst, president of the college, said: "We very much welcome that additional beds opened to reduce pressures last winter would appear to remain open and have increased bed capacity. However, this situation is not in the best interests of patients unless these beds are appropriately supported and patients receive the specialist care they need.

"In short, we have to ensure patients are in the right place and receive treatment from the right medical staff at the right time. "

He said the Scottish Government had recognised the problem and was working with the college and the NHS to make improvements.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Bed use can vary for many complex reasons, including disease patterns and seasonal variation. Our new bed planning tool, launched in May this year, will help boards and their partners to ensure they have the right type and number of beds and staff, in the right place.

"This winter saw added pressure from norovirus and flu, and health boards across Scotland have been given an extra £3 million to help manage winter pressures and reduce the amount of time people have to spend in hospital."