If last week’s battleground in Greater Manchester’s row over ‘tier three’ restrictions was the local desire for more furlough money, ministers are now seeking to reframe the debate.

On Friday, over the weekend, and again today they have been determined to highlight the pressures within the hospital system here in a bid to emphasise the need for new restrictions.

That includes the Prime Minister’s comment that the number of intensive care patients with Covid here is now 40pc of what it was at April’s peak, plus a Parliamentary lobby briefing today that predicted we would run out of ICU beds entirely by November 12.

In response, Greater Manchester insists the picture - while not good - is being overstated.

On Sunday, Andy Burnham said on the Andrew Marr show that the situation was being ‘exaggerated’ by Number 10, while this morning Stockport council’s leader Elise Wilson told broadcast media that, in fact, ICU occupancy is only roughly where it would be at this time of the year anyway.

Yet in order to weigh up the true scale of the pressures and the political arguments, a range of clear, hospital-level data is needed. That has not been entirely forthcoming in recent weeks as the pressures within the system have clearly grown.

So this morning, the M.E.N. sent an identical list of questions to all the key players in the row.

We wanted trust-by-trust Covid admissions numbers as a proportion of overall capacity, compared to the April peak. We also wanted the same figures broken down for intensive care and high dependency beds, plus for ventilator beds, including non-invasive ventilation.

And we wanted equivalent bed occupancy figures for this time last year, so that we could compare with the start of a normal winter.

In addition, we asked who exactly ‘owns’ the data, a perennial question that appears to have stopped us from getting trust-level information when we requested similar numbers in September.

Our request was sent to NHS England, Greater Manchester’s Health and Social Care Partnership, each individual hospital trust in the conurbation, the Department of Health and Social Care, the mayor’s office and Downing Street. We gave a 4pm deadline.

Six out of seven relevant NHS trusts did not respond. Wigan, Wrightington and Leigh said that ‘we are unable to provide figures - these will be issued at national level’, while none of the others have replied.

The M.E.N. understands trusts have been told by both regional NHS England and the Greater Manchester system specifically not to issue their own figures to the media today.

Greater Manchester’s Health and Social Care Partnership responded this afternoon to say that Dr Jane Eddleston would be doing a pooled interview with the Press Association about the hospital picture here. But the M.E.N's specific questions weren’t addressed.

The mayor’s office has not responded.

The Department of Health and Social Care replied almost immediately this morning, to say NHS England holds the data.

NHS England did respond with some links to data.

But most of the relevant information it offered was only broken down to North West level, which matters.

Government’s argument is about Greater Manchester specifically, so North West numbers are no good - they are skewed by the situation in Liverpool in particular.

Even so, one set of figures, on total Covid-related hospital admissions and in-patient diagnoses, did at least provide a breakdown by hospital trust.

It shows that on October 11, there were 76 new Covid patients recorded in hospitals here as a whole.

That compares to 240 on the peak day in April, according to M.E.N. analysis of government data, meaning in-patient numbers were - a little over a week ago - at around a third of where they were at that point.

Pennine Acute had the highest number out of the trusts, at 22. But it should be noted that Pennine covers the Royal Oldham, Fairfield and North Manchester General Hospital - so three separate hospitals.

Manchester Foundation Trust had 19 patients, but again, MFT has two major hospitals under its umbrella: Manchester Royal Infirmary and Wythenshawe. So working out which individual hospital has the most pressure is impossible, even if you know what their true capacity looks like. Which we don't.

Meanwhile the figures don’t break the picture down by ICU, high dependency, or by number of patients needing ventilators.

So what about ICU, the crux of the government’s argument?

Downing Street did respond to the M.E.N’s request for data, but it provided its own selection of information and not the range of numbers we asked for.

Greater Manchester has seven relevant hospital trusts. Number 10 provided numbers for four.

It said Manchester Foundation Trust’s ICU is at 70pc occupancy; Bolton at 81pc; Salford at 91pc; and Stockport at 100pc.

The figures, on the face of it, are pretty alarming. But one senior hospital clinician explained that their ICU capacity on paper is not necessarily what it is in reality.

In fact hospitals also have a ‘surge’ capacity - in other words they can stand up more beds. They can also, both within Greater Manchester and within the North West, transfer patients to other trusts.

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“We are still in a position where if people needed ventilation or needed access to a ventilator we can provide that within Greater Manchester and there are plans to expand ventilator capacity as there was in March and April,” they noted.

“We did that either by transferring out to other boroughs in GM or by opening up capacity in the individual hospital. So the claim ‘ICU is full’ doesn’t necessarily mean if patients needed ventilators you can’t ventilate them.

“You have a conversation with ICUs down the road and say ‘we’ve got a patient’.”

Another senior health figure agreed.

“Well Stockport’s ICU might be ‘full’, but that’s not uncommon, given that Stockport’s catchment area includes East Cheshire and the High Peak as far as Buxton,” they said.

“Plus that’s why we have an ICU network across the North West, so that the ICU capacity can be flexed to meet surge in demand. Also, staffing absence can also affect bed capacity not just increased patient flows.

“I suspect Number 10 think that if you live in a borough and need ICU care then you can only get that at your local hospital and if that’s ‘full’ then you won’t get an ICU bed...not that patients needing urgent ICU care are routinely transferred to the nearest available ICU bed.”

This evening, Dr Eddleston, who seems to be being used by both the local and national systems as a spokesman, made a similar point.

"The system can cope," she said. "If one looks at the stark figures one might be mistaken for thinking, ‘Oh gosh’. But that does not take into account the additional capacity that will come into play.

"They would not know all of our escalation plans. We have got very detailed escalation plans. We would bring more beds into play.

"We have made provision, we have put aside quite a lot of our beds in Covid-secure facilities.

"As a consequence, the number of beds available at any one time are dynamic.”

The M.E.N. had already gone back to Downing Street earlier today asking whether their numbers took surge capacity - and the ability to move patients around the hospital network - into account. No response has been received at the time of writing.

Greater Manchester’s system and NHS England have not provided their own ICU data in response to Downing Street's figures, however, although one senior figure said they didn't recognise them.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

And no organisation approached today was willing or able to provide equivalent breakdowns for this time last year, even though one of the region's arguments is that numbers are broadly comparable.

So it has been, after nine hours of trying to get to the bottom of it, impossible to provide a reliable and detailed picture of our hospital capacity, despite it being at the heart of a raging political row.

And it would be wrong to suggest that only Downing Street is holding out on providing full data, or to suggest that the system here is not under pressure.

The M.E.N. spent ten days towards the end of September trying to find out what the system's internal projections were for hospitals here.

When the numbers were finally leaked - they've never been officially published - they showed that Public Health England believed Greater Manchester would be at its April peak, hospital-wise, by the end of October.

That leak apparently caused an internal inquiry, such was the consternation. Yet there seems no particular reason that those forecasts could not simply have been published.

Indeed an internal dashboard provided to some senior figures shows real-time - or at least daily - admissions by trust. So they do exist and they are being circulated, but they are never made public.

We do know that across the Greater Manchester system overall, admissions have been rising - up by two thirds in the week to last Tuesday, according to the one set of public data Greater Manchester does publish each week. ICU and high dependency patients were up by a third across the system.

There is a widespread expectation that elective surgery will need to be cancelled at some point, despite a vast and growing backlog. Nevertheless as it stands, hospitals continue to be under government instruction to run ‘business as usual’ alongside the rise in Covid patients.

“It’s really busy,” said one hospital manager.

The Nightingale is being stood back up

“Our numbers are very similar to the numbers that we had in April. So we’re not far short of the numbers we had when things were at their worst in some of the GM hospitals.”

It also remains to be seen what exactly the Nightingale is for, or how it is meant to work.

“I guess we still don’t know, although I can take a pretty good guess that we won’t be using it to ventilate people,” they said.

“The limiting factor is not the number of ventilators or kit, it’s the workforce. It’s the ICU consultants and the ICU nurses. So the limiting factor to the number of people you can ventilate is a combination of workforce and the oxygen to keep them going.”

Andy Burnham and Sir Richard Leese this evening put out a statement in which they criticised what they called the government's use of 'selective statistics'.

“We are disappointed that the Government has today sought to raise public concern about the NHS in Greater Manchester with selective statistics.", it said.

“Greater Manchester’s ICU occupancy rate is not abnormal for this time of year and is comparable to the occupancy rate in October 2019.

"Also, providing information about individual hospitals does not reflect that our hospitals work as a system to manage demand.

“We are not complacent about the position in our hospitals and are monitoring the situation closely. But in the current situation, we believe it is essential that our residents are given clear, accurate information about the state of the NHS in Greater Manchester and that public fears are not raised unnecessarily.”

As Monday closes, politicians remain at stalemate. People here are watching on in anxiety, wondering what will happen and what this winter will really mean for them and the NHS.

In the meantime, the war of words over what happens next to Greater Manchester continues, while each part of the English system sits on the numbers behind their arguments.