More NHS foundation trusts have ended the financial year in the red than at any time in NHS history, hospital regulators have said, as a huge nurse recruitment drive to improve care in the wake of the Mid Staffordshire scandal takes its toll on hospital finances.
In further evidence of growing pressure on the NHS, Monitor’s annual report on the performance of England’s 147 foundation trusts found that yet more hospitals are failing to meet Government waiting times targets.
The report also revealed stark regional differences in performance, with hospitals in the Midlands performing worse on several measures.
Across the NHS Midlands region, which stretches from the Welsh border to the North Sea, 45 per cent of foundation trusts have gone into the red this year, compared to just 11 per cent in London, 20 per cent in the South and 26 per cent in the North.
Additionally, more Midlands hospitals breached waiting times targets for GP referrals and cancer treatment than in any other region.
Across England in the final quarter of 2013/14, 26 trusts missed the target of treating 85 per cent of cancer patients referred by a GP within 62 days – 10 more than the same period last year.
And for the second quarter running, the foundation trust sector as a whole breached Government targets for 90 per cent of patients to be seen within 18 weeks of referral.
Health officials said that the NHS was treating more patients than ever, with the majority seen within 18 weeks. But growing evidence of strain on the system will cause concern for the Government, one year ahead of the General Election.
Labour’s shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said the NHS was going “downhill on every measure”.
“David Cameron has to accept responsibility for this serious deterioration in the performance of the NHS. It's heading into a very dangerous place and it urgently needs better support and leadership than it's been getting from this Government,” he said.
More than 24,000 additional NHS staff were recruited in the past year, Monitor said, a four per cent increase on last year and three times higher than planned recruitment levels. Most of the new recruits were nurses, healthcare assistants and other frontline staff.
Monitor said that the recruitment drive showed hospitals were responding to care failures identified first by Robert Francis’ report into the Mid Staffordshire scandal, and then NHS medical director Sir Bruce Keogh’s report on trusts with higher than average mortality rates.
However, the additional staffing costs have added to the sector’s financial burden. 40 foundation trusts ended the year in the red, with a combined deficit of £307 million.
Although overall the foundation trust sector ended the year in surplus, experts have warned that the NHS’s financial troubles will continue to worsen without a major injection of cash.
Both the Government and Labour are under increasing pressure to outline their plans to make the NHS sustainable in its current form into the next Parliament. The King’s Fund think tank has said that more funding will have to be delivered if “significant cuts to services” are to be avoided.
Jason Dorsett, Monitor’s finance and reporting director, said that the majority of patients were still received “quality services in very difficult financial circumstances”.
“Times are tough and hard decisions will have to be made to ensure patients continue to get the services they need at an affordable cost to the taxpayer,” he added.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "It's good news for patients that we have more nurses in the NHS than ever before. Delivering high quality, safe services must go hand in hand with balancing the books. We've increased the NHS budget in real terms and all trusts must maintain a tight grip on all of their staff and non-staff costs. We will hold poor performers to account.”