In Brief

NHS A&E waiting times hit 15-year high

Are Tory cuts, an ageing population or the cold weather to blame?

A&E waiting times in England have reached their worst levels in 15 years when the four-hour target was introduced, with cuts to social services, an ageing population and cold weather all blamed.

NHS figures show accident and emergency units in England dealt with just 84.4% of patients within four hours in January, well below the 95% threshold.

This means nearly 330,000 patients waited longer than they should have. More than 83,000 people faced “trolley waits” of a further four hours while a room was found on wards, “also the highest figure since current targets were set 15 years ago”, says Sky News.

“The figures are striking because the NHS recorded its worst-ever A&E performance last month despite the absence of prolonged severe weather and relatively low levels of flu and norovirus, the winter vomiting bug,” says The Guardian.

Despite this, there were more than 2.1 million attendances in January, again the highest on record.

“This is being driven by the increasing elderly population, but has also been driven by a decade-long funding squeeze which means accessing social care services, GPs and other preventative services has been made harder,” says The Independent.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “A&E waiting times are now at their worst level since records began, which is a damning indictment of years of austerity and wider cuts imposed upon health and care services under the Tories.”

Meanwhile, Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) president, Dr Taj Hassan, said it was sad emergency departments have “become seemingly normalised with a 'chronic crisis mode' that does not allow staff to deliver the quality of care they would wish and patients should rightly expect”.

The Guardian says the NHS’s performance against its other main treatment target “has also slipped to its lowest level for almost 10 years”. This covers non-urgent procedures such as a hernia repair, cataract removal and hip or knee replacement.

Amid claims the NHS is “fighting a losing battle in trying to meet its commitments to provide timely healthcare” there have been calls for the four-hour target, first introduced under Tony Blair, to be revised.

The recently published NHS 10-year plan did not address changes to the target, although Simon Stevens, NHS England's chief executive, has repeatedly said it is not fit for purpose when many conditions can safely wait longer.

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