In addition, the proportion of patients waiting to receive planned care in hospital within the 18 weeks guaranteed by the NHS constitution has fallen to its worst level. Just 87.9% of those awaiting hip, knee, hernia, cataract or other types of operations or procedures, began their care in February in that time. Almost half a million patients have waited longer than 18 weeks.The longer waits for both key types of care come after the NHS experienced its toughest winter; many hospitals ran out of beds and almost 600,000 patients were forced to wait with ambulance crews because A&E staff were too busy to take over their care.
The figures were disclosed on Thursday by NHS England shortly after the health and social care secretary, Jeremy Hunt, decided to suspend both targets for 2017-18 because so many hospitals could not meet them.
“These stark figures – including a further drop in A&E performance and 5,000 delayed patient transfers – are the clearest indication yet of the eternal winter we now face in the NHS and this should be a turning point in how we approach all planning from now on,” said Dr Nick Scriven, the president of the Society for Acute Medicine, which represents acute medical specialist hospital doctors.
“As we settle into spring, hospitals remain under immense pressure, and I am unsure how on earth we are going to catch up with elective surgery, given some non-urgent operations continue to be cancelled in parts of the country.”
The figures have prompted concern because NHS performance usually improves in March, but this year it has continued to decline, exacerbated by some very cold weather last month.
Ian Eardley, the senior vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said: “Despite better planning this winter and staff going above and beyond to help patients, the NHS has once again faced intense pressure. A&E departments were snowed under by the second big freeze of the winter, with heavy demand carrying on well into March.
“This has resulted in some hospitals continuing to cancel planned operations so that they could prioritise patients needing emergency care.”
He added: “In the worst-affected areas, some cancer operations have had to be cancelled over the winter. Having an operation or treatment cancelled is very distressing for patients, who are often in pain or discomfort, and it can cause their condition to deteriorate, potentially making treatment more complicated.
“Cancelling cancer operations is utterly unacceptable, and to avoid such a situation arising again, planning for next winter must start now. There also needs to be a concrete plan for dealing with the backlog that has grown over this winter.”
A&E performance was also the worst-ever as judged by NHS England’s preferred measure, which includes patients treated at walk-in and urgent care centres. Using that standard, A&E performance was 84.6% – the lowest monthly proportion in NHS history.
The 92% target under the referral to treatment pathway has been breached every month for the last two years.
The number of people who have waited more than a year for their care has breached 2,000 for the first time since August 2012. In February, 2,236 people had waited 52 weeks or more, up from 1,869 in January.
Nigel Edwards, the chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, said: “The NHS simply cannot go on like this. Running a health system so close to capacity is highly risky and doing so endangers patient safety, as well as staff wellbeing.
“The prime minister has rightly signalled a more sustainable financial settlement for the NHS. This must ensure that the whole system – both inside and outside of hospital – is able to cope with the levels of demand for healthcare now and in the future.”