A&E Problems 'spreading across NHS'
Problems that have hit A&E services are spreading to other areas of the health service, a new report claims.
Earlier this month figures showed that waiting times in accident and emergency departments in England were at their worst for more than a decade.
Now performance in other key areas is said to have deteriorated to the worst level for several years, leading to claims that the system is "creaking at the seams".
Health charity The King's Fund said its latest quarterly "monitoring" report, which is based on independent analysis of official performance data for England, revealed that:
:: The proportion of in-patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment rose to 12.5% in November - the highest level since this target was brought in in 2008.
::The target that no more than 5% of out-patients should wait longer than 18 weeks for treatment was breached in November - the first time it has been missed since 2008.
::In the second quarter of last year waiting times for cancer treatment "continued to worsen" with 83.5% of patients receiving treatment within 62 days of urgent referral from their GP. This is the lowest proportion since the current target was introduced, the report said.
::The number of cancelled operations during November to January was up by a third on the same period in 2013.
John Appleby, chief economist at The King's Fund, said: "While recent attention has focused on the problems faced by A&E units, performance against waiting time targets and other indicators has continued to worsen.
"Taken together, the findings from this quarter's report show that services are stretched to the limit. With financial problems also endemic among hospitals and staff morale a significant cause for concern, the situation is now critical."
The King's Fund said that the increases in waiting times for hospital treatment can be partly explained by the Government's policy of allowing a 'managed breach' of the 18-week targets while a backlog of those waiting for long periods is cleared.
It also surveyed NHS finance directors and found that more than 40% forecast that their trust will end the financial year in deficit.
However, a poll of clinical commissioning group (CCG) finance leads indicated that they have a more optimistic outlook, with more than 90% of groups expecting to break even or finish the year in surplus.
More than 60% of finance directors reported that their forecast financial position depended upon extra financial support through loans and finance from the Department of Health or by drawing down on their own reserves.
The officials polled identified staff morale as their top concern, alongside A&E waiting times.
Shadow health minister Jamie Reed said: "The A&E crisis is intensifying and spreading to other parts of the NHS. This is down to the Government's failure to get a grip on it.
"People are having their operations cancelled because A&E needs more and more beds - this helps to explain why waiting lists are at a six-year high.
"Labour has committed to investing an extra £2.5 billion each year - over and above the Tories - to recruit 20,000 nurses and 8,000 more GPs.
"Patients in all parts of the NHS are now being to feel the effect of the A&E crisis.
"Labour has brought forward a five-point plan to help A&Es and it's time David Cameron matched it."
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "The NHS is busier than ever which is why we have given almost £1 billion this year for almost 800 more doctors, 4,700 more nurses, 6,400 more beds and treatment for an extra 100,000 patients.
"We are backing the NHS' plan for the future and have provided an extra £2 billion in funding next year to transform out of hospital care and expect trusts to have strong financial grip to help achieve this."