The beds crisis in the NHS caused by the flu epidemic has stranded sick and injured holidaymakers in foreign hospitals, leaving insurance companies to pick up the bill, according to a leading insurer.

Eileen Porter, claims manager for Travel and Personal Underwriters (TPU), said the shortage of NHS beds during the recent flu outbreak meant many holidaymakers were not able to return home for treatment. She has called for the Government to make arrangements with countries such as Ireland and France to use their hospital beds instead.

But the Department of Health denied that the problem existed.

Porter said: "A bed in Spain can cost anywhere between £800 and £1,500 per day and that is excluding any further complications that may arise. This escalates when the insured is in America or Canada, to roughly £1,500 to £2,500, again without added complications."

Charles Sharpe, a manager for emergency assistance company International Medical Rescue, backed Porter's claims.

IMR repatriates two to three Intensive Therapy Unit (ITU) patients per week and one to two non-ITU patients per week. In normal circumstances, an ITU consultant can promise to hold for up to 12 hours. This allows for the time it takes for a patient to be flown back to Britain.

However, during the flu crisis Sharpe said it was common for seriously ill or injured holidaymakers to be stuck in foreign hospitals for between two and three days, and even had experience of cases where this was extended to ten days.

Sharpe said: "During the flu epidemic, you called an ITU consultant to arrange a bed, but as soon as you put the phone down, someone else had taken it. It is simply not on to fly these patients home and leave them in A&E when they have been receiving perfectly good treatment abroad."

Porter added: "This is the second year running that we have had a National Health bed crisis and the knock-on effect is insurers' inability to bring ill and injured clients back home to the UK."

TPU has written two letters asking to meet John Denham, Minister for Health, to discuss the issue.

But a spokesman for the Ministry denied there was any problem with holidaymakers being stranded in hospitals abroad: "That's absolute rubbish. If they can give cases and times then we will certainly look into it, but as far as we are concerned that has never happened."

He also denied that hospital beds had ever been unavailable in the UK.