The worsening NHS crisis hasn’t been helped by its failure to meet the four-hour A&E waiting-time target introduced in 2004. Speaking on BBC radio, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock signalled that he’s considering scrapping them. NHS staff have made conflicting statements on this issue, with some fearing the abolition of the targets could hamper patient safety and others welcoming a reform of outdated targets.
NHS crisis – December 2019 the worst on record for A&E waiting times
December 2019 was the worst months on record for A&E waiting times. Approximately 100’000 people waited longer than four hours. In 2004, the government introduced a target by which 98 per cent of people arriving at emergency services must be seen within four hours. In December last year, this figure dropped below 70 per cent for the first time.
When questioned on the dismal figures, the Health Secretary told the BBC that the NHS had experienced unprecedented growth in demand for its services. He also noted that an extra one million people sought help from the NHS in 2019. In contrast, NHS experts have warned of a ‘spiral of decline’ in the health service, emphasizing that A&E statistics were a mere indication of the far broader NHS crisis.
Treatment targets have played a pivotal role in the delivery of care under several governments. The Blair government introduced far more and far more stringent targets and performance checks for the NHS, so much so that some members of the health service nicknamed this strict regime as ‘targets and terror’. In extreme cases, the targets led to ambulances queuing outside A&E, to enable emergency staff to meet them. Providing sensible patient care became secondary to passing government performance tests in some instances.
Matt Hancock hints at abolishing targets and pledges substantial funding
On Wednesday morning on the BBC, Matt Hancock told listeners that he had been asked to examine whether the targets were “clinically appropriate.”
Teresa May put the four-hour waiting time target under review in March, and the new Health Secretary appears keen on reform. In some hospitals, staff are already piloting a scheme where people suffering from more serious conditions receive treatment first, whereas people with minor health issues spend more time waiting.
When asked whether he was considering scrapping the targets, Matt Hancock said that “it’s far better to have targets that are clinically appropriate and supported by clinicians”.
Among some, the idea of running A&E departments without waiting time targets has raised concerns. Some patients may be left without care for hours, while scrapping targets also fails to address the issue of patients lying on trolleys in emergency departments in their drolls.
Today, the government is paving the way to enshrine its election campaign funding pledge in law. The NHS funding bill would see government funding increased by nearly 34 billion by 2024.