“Unacceptable A&E waits are the new normal, doctors declared today, after NHS hospitals suffered yet another worst month on record.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine dismissed excuses about bad weather and flu and urged patients to write to their MPs to demand improvement.
A&E units saw only 85 per cent of patients within four hours in February, worse than the previous low of 85.1 per cent seen in December and January last year. In major hospitals, the figure was 76.9 per cent, also the lowest since records began in 2010, and in some units barely half of patients were dealt with in time. It means 100,000 more people suffered longer delays than last year.
NHS chiefs blamed an inexorably rising tide of sicker patients, with this winter seeing 261,000 more people coming to A&E than last year, up 5 per cent. More of these patients were also ill enough to need a bed, with emergency admissions up 6 per cent to 1.4 million. Wards were about 95 per cent full all winter, well above the 85 per cent estimated to be safe.
Taj Hassan, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said: “Performance that once would have been regarded as utterly unacceptable has now become normal and things are seemingly only getting worse for patients. It’s important to remember that while performance issues are more pronounced during the winter, emergency departments are now struggling all year round.”
In January the heads of half of England’s A&E units wrote to the prime minister to warn her that patients were dying in corridors.
Dr Hassan said: “The current crisis in our emergency departments and in the wider NHS is not the fault of patients. It is not because staff aren’t working hard enough, not because of the actions of individual trusts, not because of the weather or norovirus, not purely because of influenza, immigration or inefficiencies and not because performance targets are unfeasible. The current crisis was wholly predictable and is due to a failure to prioritise the need to increase healthcare funding on an urgent basis.”
He added: “We need an adequate number of hospital beds, more resources for social care and to fund our staffing strategies that we have previously agreed in order to deliver decent basic dignified care. We would urge our patients to contact their MP to tell them so.”
Nigel Edwards, head of the Nuffield Trust think tank, said that A&Es were in their worst shape since 2004.
“The main waiting times targets for cancer and planned treatment are being missed, and there is no sign of recovery,” he said. “Fundamentally, these pressures are driven by a lack of money and staff. If these are not addressed it is inevitable that as difficult as February has been for NHS staff and patients there will be worse to come.”
Figures from the British Social Attitudes survey last week showed dissatisfaction with the NHS up seven points to its highest level since 2007, with most people blaming the government.
A spokesman for NHS England said: “NHS staff continued to work hard in February in the face of a ‘perfect storm’ of appalling weather, persistently high flu hospitalisations and a renewed spike in norovirus. Despite a challenging winter, the NHS treated 160,000 more A&E patients within four hours this winter, compared with the previous year. The NHS also treated a record number of cancer patients over these most pressured months of the year.”
He pointed to figures showing that 22,800 routine operations had been cancelled in January, less than half the number feared.
However, the Royal College of Surgeons pointed out that 62,000 fewer operations were carried out this winter, despite rising demand, because procedures were not scheduled in the first place to help take pressure off A&Es.
Professor Derek Alderson, its president, said: “NHS England’s advice to hospitals to cancel all elective operations in January was a necessary evil under the circumstances. It meant patients avoided the distress of having their operation cancelled after turning up to hospital and it freed up NHS staff and resources to deal with patients needing emergency treatment. However, it also inevitably prevented many patients who are in discomfort or pain from having an operation when they needed it, potentially causing their condition to deteriorate.”
Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, said: “The government has let NHS patients down this winter. Every year under this government waiting times get worse and more and more patients face hours on end in overcrowded emergency departments. The brilliant staff of the NHS have been working round the clock in the wind and the snow but they’re being undermined by a government which has refused to give the NHS the resources it needs.”
Source: The Times (pay wall)