The NHS is heading for one of its “bleakest” ever winters, and 100,000 people could end up stuck on trolleys waiting for hospital beds, experts have said.
New figures from NHS England show that A&E performance is at its worst-ever level while the health service has also missed a raft of other targets, including how long people wait to start planned treatment and waits for cancer care.
The Society for Acute Medicine said acute and emergency care in the NHS is “imploding” before the expected winter crisis hits.
Dr Nick Scriven, outgoing president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said hospitals were under “intense pressure” with many at full capacity, yet politicians were “avoiding the elephant in the room”.
‘The elephant in the room’
Shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “Under Boris Johnson the NHS is in crisis and we’re heading for a winter of abject misery for patients.
“Our A&Es are overwhelmed, more so than ever. In every community there’s an ever growing queue of people waiting for treatment.”
Labour has set out a “Rescue Plan” to end the “Tory NHS crisis”with £6 billion more flowing into the NHS than under Conservative plans to fund safe, quality care, recruit thousands of staff, rebuild crumbling facilities and refresh equipment.
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman, Luciana Berger, said: “This is a damning indictment of the Conservatives’ dismal record on the NHS.”
The new NHS data shows that one in six patients waited longer than four hours in A&E in England during October – the worst-ever performance since the four-hour target was introduced in 2004.
Some 83.6 per cent of patients arriving at A&E were treated or admitted in four hours. The target is 95 per cent but it has not been met since July 2015.
The data also showed that in September, 84.8 per cent of patients started treatment within 18 weeks against a target of 92 per cent – a continued decline in performance. The target was last met in February 2016.
‘One of the bleakest winters in the NHS’s history’
Nuffield Trust chief economist, Professor John Appleby, said: “These figures show the next government will immediately be faced with one of the bleakest winters in the NHS’s history.”
Prof Appleby added: “We have many months to go until seasonal pressures really hit the NHS, but October has already seen an unprecedented slump with performance against the main A&E target worse than ever.
“The health service is seeing far more patients, yet one in six is now waiting more than four hours in A&E. If the usual trends continue after Christmas, that would head towards one in five.
“Meanwhile the number of people waiting on trolleys in corridors because no beds are available has already hit 80,000 – something we have only seen before in the very coldest part of the year.
“If this trend keeps going, I fear we could see 100,000 people stuck on trolleys this coming January.
“As the election promises roll in, we should be under no illusion about the money, staff and time it will take to turn this situation around.”
The data comes as the Royal College of Surgeons called on political leaders to keep the 18-week wait for planned treatment – which is currently under review and could be scrapped.
‘It just isn’t acceptable for so many people to languish on these lists, with deteriorating physical and mental health’
In March, NHS England announced proposals to scrap the key targets for patients to be seen in A&E within four hours, or to receive an operation within 18 weeks.
Under new targets being piloted, those patients with the most serious conditions such as heart attacks, strokes and sepsis, would receive rapid treatment within an hour, while people with more minor conditions can expect to wait longer in A&E.
Data would be published on how long patients spend on average in A&E and the 18-week target would be replaced by an average marker of the time it takes to start treatment.
The Royal College of Surgeons and the charity Versus Arthritis called on party leaders to safeguard the 18-week target.
Writing to all party leaders, Professor Derek Alderson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons and Liam O’Toole, chief executive of Versus Arthritis, said: “Despite being a statutory requirement, the 18-week standard has increasingly been forgotten.”
Prof Alderson added: “It just isn’t acceptable for so many people to languish on these lists, with deteriorating physical and mental health as they wait for treatment.
“In the absence of any proven, better measure, we are calling on all parties to commit to upholding the 18-week maximum wait not just in law but in practice.”
Mr O’Toole added: “The continued failure to reach the target means that large numbers of people with arthritis are living in a world of pain, unable to work, move or function and disconnected for months on end from a normal life.”
The NHS is one of the key battlegrounds for voters in the general election.
One one of his visits to hospitals around the country, Boris Johnson was confronted in September by angry father of a sick child who told him the NHS is being “destroyed,” accused him of using the hospital as a “press opportunity” and declared: “My daughter nearly died yesterday”.