Amid all the fuss about NHS structures, it would be easy to forget what was happening in one area that really impacts on patients and that is the length of time people wait for treatment.
The other night I took part in one of those end-of-the-week discussions on Radio 4. The other panellist was Tory health PPS Anna Soubry. I said one of the key developments in the NHS in the past year had been the increases in waiting times. ‘That’s not true’ she said and denied there had been any increase. The interviewer quickly moved on to another subject. So I thought I would ask the House of Commons Library what the situation was.
This is what they told me.
The proportion of patients in England waiting more than four hours in A&E was 2.1 per cent last year. This year it is 3.4 per cent. (Department of Health).
The proportion of patients waiting more than 18 weeks was 7.2 per cent last year. This year it is 13.8 per cent. (Department of Health) .
The proportion of people waiting more than six weeks for diagnostic tests was 0.8 per cent last year. This year it is 2.5 per cent. (Department of Health).
Anna Soubry or any health minister is welcome to tell me whether they believe any of these figures, all from their own Department of Health, are ‘not true’. Waiting times matter because they are the historic means by which the NHS managed pressure. Labour wanted to ensure lower waiting times for people and brought in targets to do so. Sometimes these were unpopular with professionals but they ensured minimum standards of service for the patients who pay for the NHS through their taxes. The creeping rise in the numbers having to wait longer for NHS treatment than the maximum waits Labour set down should worry the Conservatives. They ought to be trying to fix the problem rather than denying it exists.
This article is also available on the Progress Online website. Posted on 15 June 2011.