NHS fails to hit targets over ‘worst winter on record’ despite mild weather

Emergency departments are still struggling to meet NHS targets under increased demand from patients, NHS England’s performance figures for February 2017 have revealed.

The figures show that at the end of a winter period that health organisations have described as the “worst on record”, standards were not being properly met in a number of areas, including for ambulance response times and cancer waiting times.

In ambulance departments, it was reported that just 69.3% of Red 1 calls were responded to within 8 minutes, falling some way below the standard of 75% last met in May 2015. In terms of the less severe Red 2 calls, only 61.7% of ambulances nationwide were meeting response targets, falling behind a standard which was last met at the start of 2014.

Cancer services were also found to be struggling to cope with demand, with just seven of the eight standards being met, and only 79.8% of patients beginning a first definitive treatment were seen by a GP within 62 days – below the 85% standard.

The number of delayed days in February also shot up to almost 185,000 compared to 158,131 last year.

In A&E, though the number of attendances were actually 3.7% less than in February 2016, attendances over the last 12 months were higher than levels over the previous 12-month period by 3.1%.

Health organisations respond to ‘tough winter’

Jim Mackey, chief executive of NHS Improvement (NHSI), agreed that the statistics showed the NHS had gone through a “tough winter”.

“Over a thousand extra people were coming through the doors of our emergency departments each day and the NHS was also dealing with increased numbers requiring an ambulance or emergency admissions,” Mackey said. “This, naturally, has had a knock-on impact on the number of people waiting for routine operations.”

However, the NHSI chief executive also thanked the hard work of staff and initiatives like the Emergency Care Improvement Programme for ensuring that the vast majority of patients received speedy, high-quality care.

“And things are getting better,” Mackey assured patients. “From talking to staff on the ground, I know that the picture in April is likely to be very different to the one reflected in these statistics. 

“We will continue to support trusts as they work to ensure all patients receive the best standard of care possible.”

But Richard Murray, director of policy at The King’s Fund, argued that the performance statistics offer further evidence of an NHS continuing to struggle with high demand.

“Although February saw some improvements as winter pressures began to ease, the NHS is still failing to meet key targets such as A&E and cancer waiting times,” he stated.

NHS England’s recent delivery plan promises a renewed focus on addressing these delays in A&E and cancer treatment, but getting back on track will be a momentous challenge. Hospitals are clearly under severe pressure and improving key services within the current budget is a highly ambitious goal.”

To reach this goal, Murray argued that the government must go one step forward than providing new money for social care by investing further in primary care and community health services. 

“With almost no growth in the health service budget from next year, the government will need to reconsider the NHS funding settlement if it wants to maintain the quality of care,” he concluded.

The BMA also claimed that the figures showed that emergency patients had seen the worst winter on record, with its council chair, Dr Mark Porter, adding: “It is time for the government to accept the growing body of evidence which shows an overstretched and under-funded NHS now at breaking point and struggling to cope with increasing patient demand.

“Over the past few months we have seen unsustainable bed occupancy levels, increasingly delayed transfers of care, and unacceptable waits for A&E treatment. Targets are consistently not being met across the health system, and current trends suggest that performance will continue to deteriorate rather than improve.”

Dr Porter also said that it was lucky that the weather had been mild this winter, as more severe weather could have led to an outbreak of serious illness, such as the flu or the norovirus, that the NHS would not have been able to cope with.

“The record levels of delayed transfers of care show we can’t address problems in A&E without looking at the system as a whole,” he added. “We can only tackle the pressure on A&E if every part of the system – from our GP surgeries, to hospitals, to community care – is fully supported and working well.

“To protect the future of the NHS, the government must produce a long-term plan and raise the UK’s health spending as a proportion of GDP to match that of other leading European economies.”

Top Image: Peter Byrne PA Wire

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