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Patients ‘in pain and distress’ forced to postpone treatment as NHS six-month waits hit new record

‘This is an NHS in a year-round crisis thanks to years of cutbacks and understaffing’

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Thursday 11 July 2019 18:26 BST
NHS at 70: A timeline of the National Health Service and its crisis

The number of NHS patients forced to wait more than six months for treatment has hit an all-time high while A&E’s performance has reached its worst June levels on record, official figures show.

Health service performance figures for May show 245,079 people spent more than 26 weeks on the waiting list, with experts warning many will be “in pain and distress”.

A heatwave last summer led to unprecedented pressures in the NHS which sapped trusts' time to prepare for winter and there are warning signs this summer could be even worse.

The proportion of patients waiting more than four hours to be seen in A&E last month more closely resembled the run up to Christmas than the the start of summer, and was the worst June performance on record.

Just 86.4 per cent of patients were seen within four hours, down from 90.8 per cent 12 months ago.

Summer months once provided critical breathing room where NHS providers could make vital improvements, but the latest figures show “this is no longer the case”, experts said. “Surgeons up and down the country have raised concerns that waiting times for planned operations continue to grow,” said Professor Derek Alderson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS).

“It is imperative we sort this out quickly before winter arrives and hospital admissions increase again,” he added.

NHS groups have warned bids to tackle waiting lists are being “crippled” by pensions changes, introduced in 2016 by former chancellor George Osborne, as senior consultants and surgeons cut their hours to avoid massive tax bills. However, years of austerity under Conservative-led governments saw performance slip long before this change.

While £20.5bn has been pledged to the NHS, the demand from older, sicker patients is only increasing as social care and public health budgets have been cut.

The target to see 95 per cent of patients within four hours at A&E was last hit nationally in 2015, and it is one of a host of benchmarks likely to be jettisoned or altered as part of changes recommended by an NHS review.

The latest figures show cancer patients are also being affected, with targets to treat patients in need of an urgent scan or surgery within 62 days being missed for nearly three-and-a-half years.

“It has been the worst financial year on record for cancer waiting times with almost 34,000 people waiting too long for treatment and dealing with the additional anxiety and worry that brings,” said Dr Moira Fraser-Pearce, director of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support.

There are 4.39 million people waiting for treatment across England and more than 1 million waiting for MRI scans and other diagnostic tests.

GP Patient Survey data also released today shows satisfaction with services has continued to slide.

While confidence in staff remains high, only 82.9 per cent said their overall experience of their practice was “good”, down from 83.8 per cent last year, and just 57 per cent said they could see the GP when they wanted.

Labour said the figures were a sign the NHS was in a “year-round crisis” and that standards were slipping while the health secretary Matt Hancock and his fellow ministers were distracted by the Tory leadership battle.

"Patients will find it staggering that this summer A&E performance so far has actually been worse than it was in the run up to Christma," said shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth. "Those stranded on trolleys in overcrowded hospitals is up 376 per cent compared to last June.

"What's more the waiting list for treatment is at a record high with patients waiting longer in pain and distress.

“This is an NHS in a year-round crisis thanks to years of cutbacks and understaffing."

NHS England said the longest waits, of more than nine months or a year, were falling but said “hospitals are reporting continuing staffing and bed pressures”.

A spokesperson added: “Local areas across the NHS are now reviewing the extra staffing and capital investment in facilities and diagnostics they will need for the next five years, ahead of national decisions on these later this year.”

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