Performance against the four-hour accident and emergency waiting time target fell to a new low during February, according to latest figures.
A report published today by NHS England stated that 87.8% of patients were admitted, transferred or discharged from A&E within four hours of arrival, which is below the 95% standard expected.
“We need honesty and realism over what level of performance can be expected”
Put another way, 12% of patients waiting more than four hours for admission, transfer or discharge, well over double the government target of 5%.
“This is the lowest performance since monthly data became available in August 2010,” noted NHS England’s report, which also contained performance data on other areas, including cancer treatment, mental health and NHS 111.
In major A&E departments, the performance is even worse with 18% of patients waiting longer than four hours. The number of “trolley waits” also remains high, with 15% of patients waiting in emergency departments to be admitted to hospital.
Overall, there were 1,871,729 attendances at A&E in February 2016, 13.1% more than in February 2015 – though NHS England highlighted February 2016 contained an extra day due to the leap year.
Attendances over the latest 12 months are higher than levels in the preceding 12 month period by 1.6%, it added.
Meanwhile, there were 462,865 emergency admissions in February 2016, 9% more than in February 2015. Emergency admissions over the last 12 months are up 2.6% on the preceding 12 month period.
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Richard Murray, director of Policy at the King’s Fund think-tank, said: “Issues in A&E are symptomatic of the mounting crisis NHS trusts are facing as they try to maintain services while under increasing pressure to reduce their unprecedented overspends.
“Hospitals have too few beds to meet demand,” he said. “Better services outside hospital and investment in social care could help to reduce the numbers of people that need hospital care as well as speeding their discharge home.”
However, he highlighted that trusts had been able to meet the 18-week waiting time target for planned procedures, which he said was “an achievement given rising levels of demand and financial pressures”.
Saffron Cordery, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which represents acute trusts, said the failure to meet key performance targets was “down to a difficult mix of spiralling demand for care, lack of social care support in the community, and the effects of the longest and deepest financial squeeze in NHS history”.
“The persistent failure to achieve the four hour A&E target shows just how much pressure our A&E departments are under,” she said. “We need honesty and realism over what level of performance can be expected.”
Senior nurses speaking at Nursing Times’ Deputies Congress earlier this week noted that the four-hour target was increasingly being used as a “barometer” for pressure on the overall acute sector, but described it as a “blunt tool”.