'Almost unthinkable'

December sees worst A&E wait times on record with 2,347 patients waiting 12 hours or more

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An NHS at breaking point continues in crisis as the latest figures show A&E wait times in England have soared to the worst on record.


Data out on Thursday (January 9) revealed that nearly 100,000 patients in December alone were forced to wait more than four hours in hospital corridors amid a bed shortage crisis. An astonishing 2,347 patients waited at least 12 hours in December – 8 times the number who waited that long in the same month last year, when only 284 spent half a day in A&E waiting to be seen.


In total, A&E departments in England were able to admit, transfer or discharge only 68.6 per cent of patients within the four-hour target. This was the first time in any month since records began – back in 2004 – that the percentage fell below 70 per cent.


Patients are not just languishing in A&E corridors; they’re left waiting for critical minutes and hours in ambulances which can have a devastating impact on 999 calls.


The latest data shows that in the five weeks since winter began, more than 80,000 patients were forced to wait in ambulances with paramedic staff for at least half an hour after delays in being admitted by A&Es. Of these more than a quarter waited in ambulances for at least an hour.


Beyond accident and emergency waits, patients are also experiencing interminable delays for non-emergency procedures and cancer treatment. The number of people waiting for procedures such as knee or hip surgery or cataract removals now totals 4.5m. In November, more than 17,000 patients diagnosed with cancer did not see a specialist within two weeks of being referred by their GP, while an additional 3,000 patients with cancer did not have so-called ‘urgent’ treatment within two months.


“These would be dire performance figures for any December but what’s worrying is that we are still awaiting the truly cold winter weather that we know will plunge the NHS into further problems,” said Nuffield Trust chief economist John Appleby.


He added that the more than 2,000 patients waiting at least 12 months would have once been considered a “rare and almost unthinkable event”.


“Missed targets are now the norm with more than one in five people attending A&E waiting longer than four hours to be admitted to hospital, transferred or discharged home,” Appleby went on to say, adding that despite extra government funding for the NHS since April, the latest data shows “just how long it is going to take for it to be felt by patients and staff”.


Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe agreed.


“The misery facing hundreds of thousands of patients this winter is only just beginning,” he warned. “That the latest NHS data is so dire even amid a winter that’s so far been notably mild shows just how bad things have become.


“The worst wait times on record don’t just happen in a vacuum,” he added. “The problems within the NHS have unfurled over a decade of Tory-led funding cuts and a scandalous failure to take action amid a recruitment and retention crisis that shows no signs of abating.  The fact there are around 1000 vacancies in ambulance services across England and ambulance trusts believe the workforce challenges are a threat to the safety of the service underlines these latest figures.”


“What is needed is proper, long-term funding of the health service – not simply hastily-devised cash-injections that only reverse what successive Tory governments have already cut. We also need to create a decent working environment within the NHS, with fair pay and conditions,  to attract the many thousands of NHS staff that we so desperately need, as well as a better culture to enable staff currently working in the NHS to stay working in the NHS. This is the only way we’ll create a viable and sustainable health service.



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