Theresa May cannot ignore NHS crisis or brush off critics

Figures show health service performance is at an all-time low and the hospitals crisis is out of control

Most months, and most weeks during winter, the openness the NHS claims to practise yields an array of statistics showing how the service has performed against a range of targets. The figures usually tell a grim story.

Whether it’s ambulance response times to 999 calls, the number of patients waiting more than four hours in A&E or the number waiting longer than they should for urgent cancer care, NHS performance against such metrics is the worst it has ever been.

Jeremy Hunt prefers to trumpet the record numbers of patients being seen, a byproduct of our ageing and increasingly lifestyle-affected population. But few experts take that seriously as an indicator of the health of the health service.

Theresa May will make an important speech tomorrow on mental health, rightly drawing attention to an under-resourced area of enormous concern. But the headlines this weekend are all about a wider NHS crisis that seems to be spiralling dangerously out of control.

May will hope that the intense pressures that prompted the British Red Cross to declare on Friday that the state of hospitals and ambulance services was a “humanitarian crisis” were simply the result of a backlog from the festive period. But the evidence suggests that is not the case; the overload of the system appears to be real and risks to patients rising. Accepting the realities of the ongoing and increasingly visible deterioration of the nation’s most-loved institution would involve significant political risk for the prime minister.

One recently retired NHS trust chief executive believes the deaths at Worcestershire Royal hospital in early January of two patients who had been waiting on trolleys for a bed could become a new “Jennifer’s ear”. Jennifer was a five-year-old who featured in a Labour Party broadcast during the 1992 general election campaign, who had been waiting 11 months for an ear operation. Her plight came to symbolise the Tories’ alleged running down of the NHS.

Media coverage of corridors full of patients on trolleys, waiting to get a bed on a ward, also played a key part in the 1997 election, which Labour won by a landslide. David Cameron’s drive to detoxify the Conservative brand on health, ensuring the NHS was seen as safe in their hands, was conceived in the aftermath of those dark days for his party.

So the parallels being made between then and now by Dr Mark Holland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, must be worrying for May and Hunt.

True, every winter brings examples of trolleys stacking up in corridors. Two years ago Stoke made headlines; now it’s Worcester’s turn. But the large number of hospitals declaring a red or black alert – their way of saying that they can’t cope, at least temporarily – is not normal. And the huge amount of ambulance crews’ time being wasted looking after patients because A&E staff are too busy to accept them is becoming an urgent problem.

Other serious issues include hospitals having to rush to create extra bed space in order to cope with unprecedented numbers of patients needing to be admitted. Above all, the increasingly long waits for treatment being experienced by more and more people indicate that quite a few hospitals are, as Holland puts it, back to the “chaos” of the 1990s.

The impression is of a service that is wilting, even cracking, under the strain. Dr Taj Hassan, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, which represents A&E doctors, talks of conditions creating “untold patient misery”.

Health experts fear that both quality of care and patient safety are at risk amid a chaos made worse by chronic understaffing.

What is the government’s response? May and Hunt’s stock answers are the disputed “£10bn extra”, combined with “more staff than ever” and the assertion that “demand is no heavier than usual for the time of year”.

But if there are more Worcesters, because doctors, paramedics and hospital staff are too busy to give patients the time they need, or to respond to them quickly enough because they’re tending to others, those pat lines may quickly appear dangerously glib and inadequate.


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Theresa May urged to get a grip on NHS as winter crisis spirals
Call for PM to make emergency statement to Commons as doctors compare chaos to the dark days of 1990s

Toby Helm and Denis Campbell

07, Jan, 2017 @10:00 PM

Article image
Diabetic’s fatal condition mistaken for hangover at A&E
Ombudsman’s report details 100 cases of serious blunders by hospitals and GPs

Denis Campbell

29, Oct, 2016 @10:06 PM

Article image
Pollution and flu bring steep rise in lung-related illnesses
Shortage of specialists adds to worries that surge in respiratory diseases is putting pressure on A&Es

Jamie Doward

09, Dec, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
A&E crisis leads to surge in cancelled operations

Doctors raise alarm as surgery is hit, after figures show cancellations have reached a 10-year high

Daniel Boffey, policy editor

01, Jun, 2013 @8:44 PM

Article image
NHS chiefs look to scrap four-hour A&E maximum wait
Patients with minor ailments would miss out in change to targets

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

02, Dec, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Top doctors warn of 'worst winter' in hospitals as A&E crisis grows
Waiting times already a cause of 'grave concern' as logjam causes a potential tipping point for NHS

Toby Helm and Denis Campbell

02, Nov, 2013 @8:00 PM

Article image
NHS chiefs warn that hospitals in England are on the brink of collapse
Theresa May urged to boost funding or ration care to head off escalating cash crisis and avoid ‘1990s-style decline’

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

11, Sep, 2016 @1:07 PM

Article image
Doctor’s searing chronicle of NHS piles pressure on Hunt
Medics say ‘powerful portrayal of life on the frontline’ will deepen concern for health service

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

01, Jul, 2017 @9:00 PM

Article image
Ambulance and A&E delays are putting patients ‘at risk’
A coroner in Wales issues a formal warning ordering NHS bosses to make improvements

Denis Campbell

26, Jan, 2019 @1:15 PM

Article image
Fears grow over renewed crisis in A&E this winter
Survey warns that senior staff believe pressures on wards will be worse than during last year's difficult winter

Daniel Boffey, Policy editor

07, Sep, 2013 @8:31 PM