Waits for hospital treatment in England hit record high

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Waiting times for routine hospital treatment in England have hit record levels, according to official data that underlines the difficulty Rishi Sunak’s government faces in reducing care backlogs by the next election.

Figures published by NHS England on Thursday showed 7.4mn people were queueing to begin hospital treatment by the end of April, up from 7.3mn in March, while about 2.2mn patients attended accident and emergency departments last month, the third-highest since records began.

About 40 per cent of patients were waiting more than 18 weeks to begin treatment against a target of 8 per cent, while 371,111 patients were queueing for a year, a rise from 359,798 in April. Some 95,135 were waiting for more than 65 weeks — a delay the health service has said it aims to eradicate by next April.

Meanwhile, 11,477 patients were waiting more than 18 months to start treatment, up from 10,737 a month earlier, despite the government’s pledge that no one would be waiting longer than this by the start of April. In all, 523 patients were waiting more than two years for treatment.

The data will pile fresh pressure on the prime minister, who has vowed to deliver his “people’s priority” of cutting waiting lists ahead of the next general election, to be held by January 2025, in which health will be a key battleground.

Efforts to reduce the backlog have been hampered since December last year by the wave of strikes by nurses, junior doctors and ambulance workers, who have demanded higher pay to offset rising living costs.

Most nurses in England last month rejected the government’s offer of a 5 per cent rise for 2023-24 and are balloting on further walkouts. Junior doctors represented by the British Medical Association also remain locked in dispute with ministers and are due to strike again next week.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, said Thursday’s data showed that despite “the most disruptive industrial action in its history”, average waiting times had fallen to 14 weeks, their lowest level since before winter.

While the health service knew overall queues “would continue to increase . . . as people who may have put off coming forward for care over the past few years of the pandemic sought help”, he added, the figures pointed to “another record 12 months for cancer treatment and referrals”.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which speaks for health groups across England, said “remarkable progress” had been made in cutting the longest waits for elective care. But she cautioned that the “record demand” called for “action on a national level”, including fresh pay talks and publication of the long-awaited NHS workforce plan.

Her comments were echoed by Fiona Myint, vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, a professional body, who said “every extra day of delay [to the plan] . . . will make slashing record hospital waiting lists all the more difficult”.

She added that while good progress had been made in creating surgical hubs, which provide extra capacity for non-emergency treatment, ministers needed to ensure they were “adequately staffed, without pulling resources away from emergency departments”.

Waiting times for ambulances increased between April and May, although they were shorter than in every month of last year.

In England, the mean average response time for category one calls, or life-threatening emergencies, was eight minutes and 17 seconds against a target of seven minutes. 

The average for category two calls, which can include suspected heart attacks and strokes, was 32 minutes and 24 seconds against a standard of 18 minutes. 

Source: Financial Times

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