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NHS waiting times: hospital bosses fear ‘a return to 1999’

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By:  Health policy editor

Four NHS trust chief executives publicly raise concerns about service struggling amid tight budgets and staffing problems

Hospital bosses have taken the unusual step of publicly drawing attention to the NHS’s declining ability to treat patients quickly enough, with one comparing lengthening waits for care to the huge delays last seen in 1999.

Four NHS trust chief executives in England have posted comments on Twitter since Tuesday lamenting the challenges the service is facing while it struggles with a tight budget and mounting staffing problems.

Their interventions reflect acute anxiety within the highest levels of the NHS that patients are being let down and that it could collapse if there is another winter crisis.

Andrew Foster, the chief executive of Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS trust in north-west England, tweeted on Thursday: “A perfect storm of funding and workforce shortages vs an abundance of patients. I see people everywhere working unbelievably hard.”

Tony Chambers, from the Countess of Chester hospital, suggested that lengthening waits for treatment meant the NHS was heading back to the long delays and patients stuck on trolleys that helped prompt Tony Blair to introduce maximum waiting time targets.

Their remarks were prompted by Sarah-Jane Marsh, the chief executive of Birmingham Women’s and Children’s trust, tweeting on Tuesday about declining performances over waiting times. “It’s hard to watch us lose all we have achieved since 2000. But every year of reduced funding per patient and it seems further from our grasp,” she said.

Jackie Daniel, boss of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay trust in Cumbria, retweeted Marsh’s post, adding: “The current situation is soooo frustrating. Every CEO I speak to is focussed and doing all they can but more is needed.”

Their comments follow disclosures by the BBC that more patients are waiting longer than the NHS Constitution says they should for A&E care, cancer treatment and non-urgent hospital operations.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said: “Chief executives tell us that they feel the NHS is under the greatest pressure in a generation – ‘it feels like a return to 1999’. Trusts are doing all they can to continue providing great care but the triple whammy of rapidly rising demand, the longest financial squeeze in NHS history and growing workforce shortages are taking their toll.”

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “We know winter is always challenging for the NHS, but this year we are supporting hospitals with an extra £100m for A&E departments, as well as £2bn for social care. NHS national leaders are working with chief executives across the country to discuss the challenges they face.”

Last week Philip Dunne, the NHS minister, insisted that the NHS had enough money to do its job properly.