As hospital wait times soar to record levels, four-year-old Jack, pictured in newspapers lying on a hospital floor suffering from suspected pneumonia, has revealed the agonising human cost of an NHS beyond crisis point.
First published in the Yorkshire Evening Post, Jack is shown wearing an oxygen mask and huddled underneath coats his mother Sarah used to keep him warm.
Sarah reported that Jack would have to wait 13 full hours from arrival before finally being seen at the overstretched Leeds General Infirmary.
Quizzed about Jack’s plight, Boris Johnson repeatedly ducked a question from a journalist on Monday (December 9). When the journalist continued to press the prime minister by trying to show a picture of Jack on his phone, Johnson refused, then shockingly snatched the journalist’s phone out of his hand and put it in his own pocket.
But as wait times become increasingly worse, the crisis in the NHS is one that can no longer be ignored, even by the likes of Johnson. And a new analysis reveals that hospital wait times in England may in fact be far worse than official data suggests.
Official data ‘hides true scale’ of problem
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine’s figures show that in the first week of December, more than 5,000 patients had to wait more than 12 hours, totalling a third of the acute bed base in England.
Since the beginning of October 2019 alone, an estimated 38,000 patients have waited longer than half a day for a hospital bed at the sampled sites across the UK.
But according to official NHS England data, only a fraction waited more than 12 hours. While the RCEM reports tens of thousands waiting longer than half a day in only three months, NHS England said only 13,025 patients experienced wait times of more than 12 hours since 2012.
RCEM president Dr Katherine Henderson explained the discrepancy.
“The key difference in the data is the way in which it is reported,” she said. “Our data measures the number of patients waiting over 12 hours from the moment they arrive at an ED, whereas NHS England (unlike Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) start the clock at the point at which a decision to admit is made – meaning that a patient could already have been waiting hours before this.
“The way in which it has historically been reported does our patients a disservice and hides the true scale of the problem of corridor care,” Henderson added.
“These figures are truly shocking and are terrible for patients and staff alike. Many patients are now getting often life changing news while stranded on a trolley in a corridor. This cannot be right, and we must strive to put an end to ‘corridor care’.”
Deaths linked to safety incidents
Separate figures out today (December 9) just days before the election on Thursday (December 12) reflect an alarming number of deaths linked to safety incidents in hospital, mental health and ambulance trusts.
According to the National Reporting and Learning System (NRLS), which compiles NHS data, there were 4,668 deaths linked to safety incidents, with 530 specifically linked to safety incidents in mental hospitals and 73 to ambulance trusts.
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth called the figures “heart-breaking” and noted “our thoughts are with the families who have lost a loved one in these circumstances”. He pointed to “years of Tory cutbacks” as behind the rise in safety incidents and he called on Johnson to apologise to little Jack and his family personally.
Responding to the latest data on patient wait times, Ashworth said, “For patients to wait 12 hours and longer in A&E is a serious risk to their safety, let alone their comfort and dignity. This is a crisis made by 10 years of cuts and neglect by the Conservatives, and their abject record shows why it is impossible to trust Boris Johnson and the Tories on the NHS.”
The latest data comes just days after a Unite poll of nearly 2,000 health service members uncovered deep concern among the workforce over patient safety.
Published last week (December 5), the poll found that 72 per cent of nurses and 65 per cent of all respondents have raised concerns about safe staffing in their working area/department over the last 12 months.
The vast majority – 95 per cent – believed the government was not doing enough to train the staff that the NHS, while 70 per cent said they experienced frequent staff shortages in the last year.
Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe called the results “frightening in terms of patient safety”.
“This snapshot survey proves that the safe staff legislation, as passed in Wales and Scotland for the NHS, is urgently needed in England and Northern Ireland to ensure that we keep patients safe and that a new impetus is given to retain and recruit skilled professionals in the NHS,” he said.
“This would need a change in culture, one that no longer puts financial diktats before patient welfare. It also requires less bean counters and management consultants telling under pressure NHS staff and managers what we already know.”
Unite national officer health Jackie Williams called the election on Thursday (December 12) a “watershed moment when voters can decide to jettison the last nine years of real time, austerity-plus, cuts to NHS resources, with staff morale at an all-time low, and burgeoning vacancy rates for NHS staff, particularly in nursing.
“We need the next decade to be one of investment, consolidation, improvement and optimum patient safety,” she added. “And the last thing the NHS needs is for it to be up for grabs in any trade deal with Donald Trump.”