Accident and emergency units in England have missed the official waiting time target over the past three months by the biggest margin in a decade, with 91.8% of patients being treated or discharged within four hours.
The latest quarterly figures from NHS England testify to the relentless pressure on hospital A&E departments as well as walk-in and urgent care centres, where patients go without appointments. The government target is for 95% of those arrivals to be dealt with within four hours. In the previous quarter, to December 2014, 92.6% of patients were seen within four hours.
The performance is worse in hospital A&E departments than in settings that tend to deal with less serious cases, such as GP walk-in centres. Only 87.5% of patients in what are termed “type 1” hospital settings were seen within four hours, which is also a new low – down from 88.9% in the previous quarter.
The figures are politically embarrassing for the government, but Dr Barbara Hakin, national director of commissioning operations for NHS England, said hospitals were doing well, given the very high numbers of people arriving at A&E. “The NHS has continued to deliver good services for patients with last week seeing the highest number of emergency admissions this year,” she said.
“In the last 12 months we have seen more than 22 million patients at A&E, an increase of 2.7% on 2013-14 with more than 5.4 million emergency admissions, an increase of 4% on the previous year. In the face of this intense and ongoing pressure our staff continued to admit or treat and discharge more than nine out of 10 patients within four hours. This represents an incredible effort by NHS staff over the course of the year.”
A significantly low point came in the week before Christmas, when only 88.8% of patients arriving for emergency consultations were seen within four hours, dropping to 83.1% of those turning up at the “type 1” hospital A&E departments.
Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary, said: “There’s only one person to blame for the A&E crisis and that’s David Cameron. He has made it harder to get a GP appointment, cut council social care budgets and wasted £3bn on a reorganisation that nobody wanted and nobody voted for.
“If David Cameron gets back in, his extreme spending cuts mean he can’t protect the NHS and the crisis in A&E will get even worse. Labour has a better plan for the NHS. We will recruit 20,000 more nurses and 8,000 more GPs, paid for by a mansion tax on homes valued over £2m, and we will guarantee GP appointments within 48 hours.”
But a spokesman for the Conservatives said: “A&E units across the UK faced unprecedented demand this winter, but English A&Es see 3,000 more patients a day within four hours than in 2009, and perform better than Scotland, Northern Ireland and Labour-run Wales, so it is completely wrong for Labour to try to turn this into a political football.
“Thanks to a strong and growing economy, we are investing £2bn in the front line next year to transform care in the community and take the pressure off hospitals.”