Waiting times at nine-year high
Waiting times for accident and emergency patients have reached a nine-year high, according to latest figures.
The monitoring report from The King's Fund showed that in the final quarter of 2012/13, 5.9% of patients (313,000 people) waited for four hours or longer in A&E, the highest level since 2004. It is an increase of more than a third on the previous three months, and of nearly 40% since the same quarter the previous year.
It means that the Government's target that no more than 5% of patients should wait for more than four hours has been broken for the first time since June 2011, when they promised to keep waiting levels low.
John Appleby, chief economist at The King's Fund, said: "Emergency care acts as a barometer for the NHS. The worryingly high number of patients waiting longer than four hours in the last quarter of 2012/13 is a clear warning sign that the health system is under severe strain. The pressures in emergency care will not be relieved by focusing on a single aspect of the problem in isolation - it requires a co-ordinated response across the whole health system.
'While the NHS is in a healthy financial position overall, efficiencies are becoming harder to deliver as one-off savings such as cuts in management costs start to slow. This is compounded by the need to maintain staffing levels following the shocking failures of care highlighted by the Francis report. With staff costs making up the bulk of the NHS budget, this will leave little room for manoeuvre - significant changes to services will be required if the NHS is to meet its target of delivering £20 billion in efficiency savings."
Nearly 40% of trusts reported that they breached the waiting time target in the last quarter. The King's Fund also said that the proportion of patients waiting more than four hours before being admitted to hospital from A&E has risen to nearly 7% - again, the highest level since 2004.
The charity said the analysis shows the "severe strain on emergency care in early 2013" and that there is a risk the same thing could happen next winter.
However, a spokeswoman for The King's Fund said: "Despite the pressures in emergency care, other NHS performance measures are continuing to hold up well. Waiting times for referral to treatment in hospital, the number of health care-acquired infections and delays in transferring patients out of hospital all remain stable."
A spokesman for the Health Secretary said: "A&E services are facing increased pressure because of Labour's disastrous GP contract and problems with integration that they failed to address.
"We have a plan to deal with these long-standing problems, which is why the most recent A&E statistics show that for the fifth week in a row we are meeting the A&E four-hour target."