NHS waiting list at five-year high as cost-cutting reforms strike

Lancet journal accuses Coalition of treating health service like a  ‘failing bank or business’

More patients are waiting for NHS treatment than at any time in the past five years, new figures have revealed, as the Government came under twin attack from a leading health journal and the Labour party over its stewardship of the health service.

Numbers of patients waiting for treatment in the NHS have increased by more than 300,000 since the start of 2013, to 2.88 million people, according to figures released by NHS England yesterday.

Waiting lists for treatment are now longer than they have been since May 2008. Labour blamed the sharp rise on “overflowing A&E departments” put under pressure by Government cuts to social care and reductions in nursing posts since the Coalition came to power. The Department of Health, under Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt, pictured, hit back by arguing that, while waiting lists had increased, the number of patients waiting more than 18 weeks to be seen was 55,000 lower than when the Coalition came to power, and insisted that A&E wards were hitting targets.

Further criticism follows today, however, as an editorial in The Lancet launches a furious attack on the Coalition’s NHS record, accusing it of treating the health service like “a failing bank or business”. The Lancet’s editors accuse the Coalition of setting it on a “path to a market commodity”. In an unusually outspoken attack, they said that the Coalition’s health reforms had delegated responsibility for running the health service to “a complex system of organisations” which are expected to cut costs and be financially successful “or else [be] deemed a failing enterprise”.

Referring to recent headlines about “bailouts” for A&E wards and Bargain Hunt-style cost-cutting exercises, the editors write that “one could be forgiven for thinking that the current Coalition Government views the NHS as a failing bank or business”.

“This stance is one of the most cynical, and at the same time cunning, ways by which the Government abdicates all responsibilities for running a healthcare system that has patient care and safety at its heart,” they write.

In a pointed critique of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, The Lancet editors say that under the new system, “exact responsibilities are at best complex, not easily understood, and at worst deliberately obfuscated”.

Commenting on the appointment of a new chief executive of the NHS, a position that will be filled in the autumn, the editors said it was “astonishing” that the candidate “does not have to have experience in, or knowledge of healthcare systems”.

The editorial comes amid growing dissent among the medical profession over the impact of the Government’s health reforms, which came into effect in April this year and have been accused of and enabling private sector organisations to win more and more NHS contracts.

A Department of Health spokesman said that patient care was “a priority” for the Government – a fact signalled by the appointment of a new chief inspector of hospitals, Sir Mike Richards, who is tasked with raising standards of care throughout the NHS following widespread concerns about patient safety. 

The editorial comes amid growing dissent among the medical profession over the impact of the Government's health reforms, which came into effect in April this year and have been accused of promoting a culture of competition and enabling private sector organisations to win more and more NHS contracts.

The British Medical Association have said the changes were “forced on reluctant doctors and patients, entrenching competition and private provision as a way of answering the problems faced by health care.”

Responding to yesterday's waiting list figures, Andrew Gwynne, Labour's shadow health minister said: “David Cameron wasted £3 billion on an NHS reorganisation that took the focus off patient care. At the same time, almost five thousand nursing jobs were axed and cuts to older people's care budgets left thousands more vulnerable people arriving at A&E.”

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