Patients and health experts have accused the Government of trying to “cover up” the scale of a looming winter health crisis by blocking the publication of key waiting-time figures.
In a controversial move, made as MPs debated authorising bombing raids in Syria, the NHS announced it was dramatically scaling back the number of benchmark tests included in its weekly bulletins – now to be published monthly – which are supposed to give a snapshot of the state of the health service.
NHS England has confirmed that the updates, due to start on 11 December, will no longer include figures on A&E waiting times, ambulance delays outside hospitals or last-minute cancellation of operations. The number of patients left on trolleys for longer than four hours will also be taken off the updates.
The move comes after ministers admitted that the official reporting period for the winter had been shortened by a month – further limiting what the public can find out about growing problems in the NHS.
Over the past two years, “winter” ran from the start of November until the end of March. However, in response to a parliamentary question, Public Health minister Jane Ellison admitted that the reporting period this year will end a month earlier.
The move comes amid growing government fears that this winter crisis to set to be worse than at any time in the past five years because of staff shortages caused by a clampdown on expensive agency staff.
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/19 Vaping backed as healthier nicotine alternative to cigarettes after latest study
Vaping has been given an emphatic thumbs up by health experts after the first long-term study of its effects in ex-smokers. After six months, people who switched from real to e-cigarettes had far fewer toxins and cancer-causing substances in their bodies than continual smokers, scientists found
2/19 Common method of cooking rice can leave traces of arsenic in food, scientists warn
Millions of people are putting themselves at risk by cooking their rice incorrectly, scientists have warned. Recent experiments show a common method of cooking rice — simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out — can expose those who eat it to traces of the poison arsenic, which contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins and pesticides
3/19 Contraceptive gel that creates ‘reversible vasectomy’ shown to be effective in monkeys
An injectable contraceptive gel that acts as a ‘reversible vasectomy’ is a step closer to being offered to men following successful trials on monkeys. Vasalgel is injected into the vas deferens, the small duct between the testicles and the urethra. It has so far been found to prevent 100 per cent of conceptions
4/19 Shift work and heavy lifting may reduce women’s fertility, study finds
Women who work at night or do irregular shifts may experience a decline in fertility, a new study has found. Shift and night workers had fewer eggs capable of developing into healthy embryos than those who work regular daytime hours, according to researchers at Harvard University
5/19 Breakfast cereals targeted at children contain 'steadily high' sugar levels since 1992 despite producer claims
A major pressure group has issued a fresh warning about perilously high amounts of sugar in breakfast cereals, specifically those designed for children, and has said that levels have barely been cut at all in the last two and a half decades
6/19 Fight against pancreatic cancer takes ‘monumental leap forward’
Scientists have made a “monumental leap forward” in the treatment of pancreatic cancer after discovering using two drugs together dramatically improved patients’ chances of living more than five years after diagnosis.
7/19 Japanese government tells people to stop overworking
The Japanese government has announced measures to limit the amount of overtime employees can do – in an attempt to stop people literally working themselves to death. A fifth of Japan’s workforce are at risk of death by overwork, known as karoshi, as they work more than 80 hours of overtime each month, according to a government survey.
8/19 Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast ‘could cause cancer’
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued a public warning over the risks of acrylamide - a chemical compound that forms in some foods when they are cooked at high temperatures (above 120C).
9/19 Cervical cancer screening attendance hits 19 year low
Cervical screening tests are a vital method of preventing cancer through the detection and treatment of abnormalities in the cervix, but new research shows that the number of women using this service has dropped to a 19 year low.
10/19 High blood pressure may protect over 80s from dementia
The ConversationIt is well known that high blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia, so the results of a new study from the University of California, Irvine, are quite surprising. The researchers found that people who developed high blood pressure between the ages of 80-89 are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) over the next three years than people of the same age with normal blood pressure.
11/19 Most child antidepressants are ineffective and can lead to suicidal thoughts
The majority of antidepressants are ineffective and may be unsafe, for children and teenager with major depression, experts have warned. In what is the most comprehensive comparison of 14 commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs to date, researchers found that only one brand was more effective at relieving symptoms of depression than a placebo. Another popular drug, venlafaxine, was shown increase the risk users engaging in suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide
12/19 'Universal cancer vaccine’ breakthrough claimed by experts
Scientists have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumours as if they were a virus, experts have said. Writing in Nature, an international team of researchers described how they had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease. The patients' immune systems responded by producing "killer" T-cells designed to attack cancer. The vaccine was also found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumours in mice, according to researchers, who were led by Professor Ugur Sahin from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany
13/19 Green tea could be used to treat brain issues caused by Down’s Syndrome
A compound found in green tea could improve the cognitive abilities of those with Down’s syndrome, a team of scientists has discovered. Researchers found epigallocatechin gallate – which is especially present in green tea but can also be found in white and black teas – combined with cognitive stimulation, improved visual memory and led to more adaptive behaviour. Dr Rafael de la Torre, who led the year-long clinical trial along with Dr Mara Dierrssen, said: “The results suggest that individuals who received treatment with the green tea compound, together with the cognitive stimulation protocol, had better scores in their cognitive capacities”
14/19 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
15/19 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
16/19 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
17/19 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
18/19 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
19/19 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
Speaking exclusively to The Independent on Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, accused the Government of “launching an NHS news blackout” to keep the public in the dark, and demanded that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, reinstate the weekly updates. He added: “We’ve a crisis in A&E, hospital wards understaffed and people waiting longer and longer – and the Tory response is to try and stop people finding out. These deeply cynical attempts to hide the truth reveal one thing: the Tories are failing patients.”
Last winter, the Government suffered a series of headlines about delayed operations, A&E waiting times and ambulance delays – all based on the weekly figures.
Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander said there was “no justification for keeping patients in the dark about how their local health services are performing”. She has written to Mr Hunt to demand the weekly figures be reinstated.
One Tory MP admitted the changes were likely to have been introduced to avoid damaging headlines. The MP said the NHS was beginning to miss waiting times “on a routine basis”, and added: “I suspect there’s a degree of wanting to weaken scrutiny from a political perspective ... A&E will struggle to hit its targets.”
Labour has been joined by health experts and patients’ groups in voicing their fury at the move.
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, said the public had “a right to know” if hospitals were in danger. “There are now many operations being cancelled on a daily basis with no date given for when the operation will take place. This is leaving patients in pain and discomfort and increasing the chances of [their] condition getting worse. The Government needs to address this serious patient safety issue and this information needs to be in the public domain.”
Ms Murphy’s remarks were echoed by health pressure groups.
Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, said: “It’s important ... for areas of the system where excessive pressure is being felt to become clear quickly. I am worried that only publishing figures monthly on indicators like waits in A&E and cancelled operations won’t provide this clarity quickly enough.”
John Appleby, chief economist at the King’s Fund, said that the change “appears to undermine the Government’s message about increasing transparency and making better use of data, and will reduce understanding across the health system about the impact of winter pressures”.
An NHS England spokesperson defended the move, saying: “We will be publishing on a monthly basis a full and comprehensive set of data on NHS performance for the public throughout the year, including this winter.
“This will include the normal measures such as the four-hour waiting standard and delays in transferring patients. The advantage is that doing this gives people a complete picture while also smoothing out week-to-week fluctuations which can be misleading.”