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David Cameron's Accident and Emergency 'spin' to be scrutinised by non-partisan UK stats watchdog


David Cameron’s claims about Accident and Emergency waiting times are being investigated by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) after he was accused of “spinning” the facts, days before official figures revealed record high attendances at emergency departments.

The Prime Minister told MPs this week that Accident and Emergency waiting times had gone down under the Coalition Government. However, the House of Commons Library challenged the reliability of his statement, pointing out that typical waits had remained unchanged, while total time spent in Accident and Emergency had actually risen for patients with the most serious conditions.

The claim, along with a similar statement made in June by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, will now be investigated by UKSA, the stats watchdog whose chairman Sir Andrew Dilnot last year criticised Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith for misusing figures.

Labour have accused the Prime Minister of “cynical spin”. The shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham, who alerted the UKSA to the contested statements on Friday, said that Mr Cameron had “serious questions to answer”.

The investigation comes as official NHS statistics reveal that a record number of people attended Accident and Emergency departments between April and June, while the country’s major Accident and Emergency departments have now failed to meet the target of seeing 95 per cent of patients in less than four hours for 50 consecutive weeks.

Accident and Emergency performance is seen as a key barometer of the health of the wider NHS, and there are concerns at the highest level of Government that the health service, which has had to cope with five years of efficiency savings and ever increasing demand, is beginning to show signs of serious strain. Conservative leaders are fearful that an Accident and Emergency crisis this winter, when pressure on emergency departments typically spikes, could damage voters’ confidence in the party’s stewardship of the NHS.

Mr Burnham said that the Prime Minister was “failing to face up to what is happening on the ground”.

“It is deadly serious out there and he is spinning a different story,” he said. “What is urgently needed is honesty from the Prime Minister and a plan to turn round pressure on Accident and Emergency departments.”

Mr Cameron’s original claim that Accident and Emergency waits were down was based upon data which shows the mean average wait from the moment a patient arrives at Accident and Emergency to the moment they are first assessed by a medical professional had dropped from 77 minutes under the Labour government to 30 minutes under the Coalition.

This claim was challenged in a blog posted online by the politically neutral House of Commons Library, which pointed out that the median average wait was a more reliable measure, and had remained unchanged at 10 minutes for several years.

Furthermore, the Commons Library said that measuring the time between arrival and first assessment was “not a natural indicator of the typical waiting time in Accident and Emergency”.

This original version of the blog, which stated that the PM’s claims were based on “a simplistic reading of the data” was removed from the Commons Library website on Thursday night, with the Library stating that it had not met its own “expected standards of impartiality”.

A House of Commons spokesperson said that the decision to remove the blog had been “removed by the Commons library on its own initiative”.

“There was no discussion with No 10, or with any other Government department on the matter,” the spokesperson said.

A new, edited version of the blog was posted today, standing by the original analysis but carrying a message explaining that “the description of the Prime Minister and Health Secretary’s use of these statistics did not meet our expected standards of impartiality”.

Dr Cliff Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine said that the debate about these figures was of “limited value”.

“The important figures [for Accident and Emergency departments] remain the demand (attendances and admissions) versus supply (head count of senior decision makers). This ratio is not improving and in many places is getting worse,” he said.

The emphasis being placed on Accident and Emergency pressures was signalled again today as the Department of Health announced that £1bn of its flagship Better Care Fund – a major reallocation of resources from the NHS to the social care sector – will be held back unless local authorities can meet targets on reducing emergency admissions to hospital, by providing preventative care in the community.

A spokesperson for the UKSA said: “The UK Statistics Authority is currently reviewing various ministerial statements recently made in the House of Commons about waiting times in Accident and Emergency units in England, and has seen an online article published on 3 July by the House of Commons Library. The Authority will publish its findings when our investigations are complete.”