The United Kingdom‘s health service recorded its worst-ever performance in England in October, and 100,000 people could end up stuck on trolleys waiting for hospital beds in the depths of winter, experts said.
New figures from NHS England show performance of Accident and Emergency departments, or emergency rooms, is at its worst-ever level, while the health service has also missed a series of other targets, including how long people wait to start planned treatment.
The data shows one in six patients waited longer than four hours in A&E in England during October – the worst-ever performance since the four-hour target was introduced in 2004 by the Labour government of the day. The figures do not cover Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
“Under Boris Johnson, the NHS is in crisis and we’re heading for a winter of abject misery for patients,” said Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth.
“Our A&Es are overwhelmed, more so than ever … The Tories spent a decade cutting over 15,000 beds. Now, they should apologise to every patient languishing on a trolley and waiting longer for treatment.”
The state-run NHS has provided free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare for more than 70 years, making it a highly emotive issue during elections, when voters rate it as the second most important subject after Brexit.
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Luciana Berger said: “This is a damning indictment of the Conservatives’ dismal record on the NHS.”
Conservatives, who have been in power in the UK since 2010 – in coalition with the Liberal Democrats until 2015 – were eager to push anti-immigration talking points on the election campaign trail on Thursday, but Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the figures showed the UK could not afford to have a Labour government run by Jeremy Corbyn.
“We are giving the biggest cash boost ever to our NHS, but Corbyn’s chaotic policies will put that at risk,” he said in a statement.
While the UK’s health service remains ostensibly public-owned and free to access, services are often put out to private tender, which critics say drives up waiting times. This “stealth privatisation” was started by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1980s, accelerated by Tony Blair’s New Labour project in the 1990s, and further ramped up by subsequent Conservative administrations.
Cuts to social services, the transfer of funding responsibilities for some services to local government, and a crisis in social housing have all led to increased pressure on the NHS in recent years.
The data released on Thursday said 83.6 percent of patients arriving at A&E were treated or admitted in four hours – the target is 95 percent, but that has not been met since July 2015.
In September, 84.8 percent of patients started treatment within 18 weeks of being assessed, against a target of 92 percent – a continued decline in performance.
As the election promises roll in, we should be under no illusion about the money, staff and time it will take to turn this situation around
“These figures show the next government will immediately be faced with one of the bleakest winters in the NHS’ history,” said Nuffield Trust chief economist John Appleby.
“Meanwhile, the number of people waiting on trolleys in corridors because no beds are available has already hit 80,000 – something we have only seen before in the very coldest part of the year. If this trend keeps going, I fear we could see 100,000 people stuck on trolleys this coming January.
“As the election promises roll in, we should be under no illusion about the money, staff and time it will take to turn this situation around.”
An NHS spokesman said: “These figures show that while NHS staff are looking after a markedly higher number of older and sicker patients, a higher number of patients are being seen quickly than a year ago.”
Writing to all party leaders, Derek Alderson, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, and Liam O’Toole, chief executive of Versus Arthritis, said: “It just isn’t acceptable for so many people to languish on these [waiting] lists, with deteriorating physical and mental health as they wait for treatment.
“In the absence of any proven, better measure, we are calling on all parties to commit to upholding the 18-week maximum wait not just in law but in practice.”
The Society for Acute Medicine said acute and emergency care in the NHS was “imploding” before the expected winter crisis hits.
Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said hospitals were under “intense pressure” with many at full capacity, yet politicians were “avoiding the elephant in the room”.
Struggling under the pressure of record demand because of a growing and ageing population, as well as cutbacks to social care services, the NHS has warned it faces a shortfall in funding despite government promises of extra money.
Corbyn’s Labour Party, which is traditionally favoured by voters to run the NHS, has said it will outspend the Conservatives if it wins the election, though Johnson has also promised to spend big to build new hospitals.
“Boris Johnson is visibly keen to keep the election campaign focused on Brexit, but the widespread flooding in Yorkshire, and now these bleak statistics on the state of the much-cherished National Health Service are opening up the political debate into a much wider examination of the Conservatives’ record in power,” said Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from London.
“The figures, and the prediction of a bleak winter ahead, are a gift to the opposition parties’ campaigns. The NHS is a crucial battleground issue, with 77 percent of Britons wanting it to be maintained, and 90 percent supportive of the founding principles which underpin it,” he added.
“A party which loses the public’s trust on the NHS will suffer at the ballot box on December 12.”