A bleak warning has been sounded that the NHS could suffer one of its worst winters in recent years unless it gets a multi-million pound boost.

NHS Providers, the health body which represents 229 of the 233 NHS Trusts in England, has called for upto £350m to be pumped into health to avoid a disastrous period for patients and staff.

The organisation says the extra £1bn that the government has handed councils to improve social care was not improving the bed blocking situation as much as planned.

NHS providers says hospitals are better prepared than last year but shortages of staff and an increase in demand for care, meant the system would suffer at the most critical time .

They fear that services already under strain will not be able to cope with the usual outbreaks of flu and norovirus.

Eveline Dugdale heads the Joint League of Friends group for the community hospitals in Cumbria.

She says fears over how we will cope during winter underline the need to retain beds that are threatened with the axe as part of a radical reform of NHS services in the county.

The Wigton, Alston and Maryport cottage hospitals are all due to lose their overnight beds as part of the Success Regime shake-up.

Mrs Dugdale led the campaign against the plan and predicts the move to reduce beds will backfire during the winter months.

She warned: “The CCG are adamant that they will cut the bed numbers. We were told initially that it would take three or four years to set up the integrated care communities that would replace them.

“But at the last meeting we had with hospital bosses, we were told they were hoping to get rid of the beds by next June.

“But when the Cumberland infirmary gets stuck, they send their extra patients to us.

“A fortnight ago, 11 of our 14 beds were taken up by people from Carlisle and we have not even hit winter yet.

“When winter comes, that is when we need the beds.

“If a norovirus outbreak struck again, they will need more beds and where will they get them from if they have taken them from the cottage hospitals?

“Some of us can see, but the powers-that-be can't.

“There are not the staff to look after these people in their homes and of they go home, you run the risk of the virus spreading even more.”

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said this week: "Last winter the health service came under pressure as never before. This winter could be worse."

"Unless we get extra money, patients will be put at greater risk as local trusts won't have the beds and staff they need to meet the extra demand we will face."

Mr Hopson said the NHS budget had increased by only 1.3% this year compared to a 5% rise in demand.

Although the NHS made savings of £20bn in the last Parliament, the Office of Budget Responsibility had estimated that the NHS would still have a £15bn funding shortfall by 2020.

Mr Hopson said: "There's a bit of a myth running around that somehow if the NHS could be that bit more efficient or a lot more productive we wouldn't need to put this extra money in.

"Of course we should find more productivity and efficiency, but it's not going to close anything like that size of gap."

Helen Ray, Chief operations officer with North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust said no extra money had been received from NHS England.

She added: "However, we are aware that NHS England is currently reviewing the allocation of money to ensure hard pressed services have the funding they need to continue on their trajectory.

"Across Cumbria we understand the need to provide our services within the financial resources we are allocated and indeed we are working to reduce our overall spend through integrated health and social care services that meet the needs of people in the most timely, efficient and effective way.

"More funding is not necessarily the answer, the key will be providing more care outside hospital environments and keeping hospitals and emergency departments free for those who need it the most.

"Providing early care for people in their local communities will be a major part of this."

The target to see 95% of patients in A&E within four hours has been missed on a national level for two years now, while bed occupancy rates remain above recommended levels.

Over the summer, just over 90% of A&E patients in England were treated or admitted within four hours.

That was the same percentage as last summer, which was then followed by the worst set of winter waiting times since the target was introduced in 2004.

A&E figures for the NCUHT slipped last month from June's 92.6% and July's 93.2% to 90.57%.

Mrs Ray said: "As we do each winter, we are putting in place comprehensive plans to manage demand and we have tried and tested these plans with partners to do all we are able to cope with anticipated demand.

"Last winter we saw significant numbers of people attending hospital who did not need to be there and we would urge members of the public to choose well this year using expert advice from pharmacies, their GPs, NHS 111, Urgent Care Centres and local community teams as the first point of care and support for coughs and colds, sprains and minor cuts and minor ailments.

"Accident and Emergency and hospital visits should only be for life threatening or serious illness and injury.

Glenn Turp, Regional director for the Royal College of Nursing Northern region said: "Yet again we’re expecting the winter to be a very busy and difficult time for the NHS across England and Cumbria.

"Unfortunately, as our population grows and ages, the pressures are year round, meaning that when there is a spike in serious illness needing hospital admission, there is no extra capacity that can be used.

“There are plans in place across the NHS to prepare for winter.

"Given the experience of previous years NHS staff would question whether they will be adequate given the very high rate of demand on services all year round.

"We know that many people remain in a hospital bed when they are medically fit for discharge, but chronic underfunding in social and community services mean people stay in hospital longer than necessary, and staff are at breaking point throughout the system.

“The Government must ensure that the NHS has the right number of nurses and medics, beds and other resources in hospitals and the community to avoid last year’s crisis being repeated”.

Prime Minister Theresa May, is expected to meet NHS England leaders next week and the regulator NHS Improvement, to check on plans for this winter.