An unprecedented increase in “excess deaths” in England and Wales could be linked to underfunding in the NHS and social care system, new research suggests.
“Relentless cuts” to the health service could be behind 30,000 deaths in 2015, argued researchers in two articles published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
The Government has angrily refuted the claims, calling the reports a “triumph of personal bias over research”.
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the University of Oxford, and Blackburn with Darwen borough council said 2015 saw the greatest rise in mortality for almost 50 years in England and Wales – with a particularly large spike seen in January.
They examined other possible explanations for the deaths, including data inaccuracies, whether there had been a major epidemic or “environmental shocks” such as wars or natural disasters.
But they concluded that “the evidence points to a major failure of the health system, possibly exacerbated by failings in social care”.
Professor Martin McKee, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said “the impact of cuts resulting from the imposition of austerity on the NHS has been profound”.
“Expenditure has failed to keep pace with demand and the situation has been exacerbated by dramatic reductions in the welfare budget of £16.7bn and in social care spending,” he said.
“The possibility that the cuts to health and social care are implicated in almost 30,000 excess deaths is one that needs further exploration.
“Given the relentless nature of the cuts, and potential link to rising mortality, we ask why is the search for a cause not being pursued with more urgency?”
The researchers warned that without “urgent intervention” from the Government, mortality rates could continue to increase.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health in England dismissed the reports, saying variation in excess death rates was normal.
“This report is a triumph of personal bias over research – for two reasons,” they said. “Every year there is significant variation in reported excess deaths, and in the year following this study they fell by nearly 20,000, undermining any link between pressure on the NHS and the number of deaths.
“Moreover, to blame an increase in a single year on ‘cuts’ to the NHS budget is arithmetically impossible given that budget rose by almost £15bn between 2009-10 and 2014-15.”
Health news in pictures
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The researchers said that in January 2015 all markers for NHS performance “worsened markedly”.
These included ambulance call out times being below target, no rise in A&E attendance but increased waiting times, and a rise in operations cancelled for non-clinical reasons.
Waiting times at A&E departments hit record levels in December, NHS England data showed, with the lowest percentage of patients seen within four hours since the target was introduced 13 years ago.
Doctors have warned of worsening conditions in overstretched hospitals, said to be at breaking point due to overwhelming demand and bed shortages.
“Our findings should be seen in the context of the worsening financial situation of the NHS,” the researchers wrote.
“With an ageing population, the NHS is ever more dependent on a well-functioning social care system.
“Yet, social care has also faced severe cuts, with a 17 per cent decrease in spending for older people since 2009, whilst the number of people aged 85 years and over has increased by almost 9 per cent.”
Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron said it was a “national scandal” that vulnerable older people may have died due to poor care, adding the NHS and social care services were “at crisis point and struggling to cope”.
“I don’t know how bad the figures need to get for Government to actually take action,” he said.