A Government target to cut waiting times in accident and emergency departments improved the performance of hospitals - but only during the week in which they were monitored, a survey has found.
The number of hospitals achieving the target rose sharply while they were being monitored but fell again in the week afterwards, providing new evidence that the figures were fiddled, according to the survey by the British Medical Association.
Ministers set a maximum four-hour waiting time for A&E departments, with 90 per cent of patients to be seen within the target time. But they gave NHS trusts advance warning that their performance against the target would be measured for one week from 24 March, allowing the hospitals to make preparations.
The BMA surveyed 95 consultants from the 207 A&E departments in England. In the week before their performance was officially monitored, 55 per cent of the departments surveyed met the government target. During the monitoring period, from 24-31 March, the proportion rose to 85 per cent. But in the week following, the proportion achieving the target fell again to 63 per cent.
Almost three quarters of the consultants surveyed said their trusts had gone to extraordinary lengths to achieve the targets, by hiring extra nurses and doctors from agencies, cancelling routine operations to free beds and making their staff work extra shifts.
Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, said last month that the target was important to patients and an indicator of an improving health service.
Donald MacKechnie, chairman of the BMA's A&E committee, said the target could be reached but only when the resources were available.