The coalition’s NHS headache gets bigger

Waiting times reach a three-year high following the decision to relax targets.

Iain Duncan Smith recently caused the government much embarrassment when he admitted that waiting times at his local hospital had increased since last year. Now, a new report by the King's Fund shows that the picture isn't much better elsewhere.

Hospital waiting times are now at their highest since April 2008, with 15 per cent of patients waiting over 18 weeks for treatment. Given the financial pressures on the National Health Service, these figures are hardly disastrous. But the numbers are moving in the wrong direction and cannot be simply explained by seasonal fluctuations.

The news will call into question Andrew Lansley's decision to relax Labour's waiting-time targets last June. As the King's Fund chief economist, Professor John Appleby, a co-author of the report, pointed out: "In the past the two things that kept waiting down were targets and extra money. Managers got sacked for not meeting targets. And of course in the future there won't be the same amount of extra money."

They may not have been fashionable, but Labour's much-derided targets and patient guarantees produced results. Lansley's decision to "relax" targets has had the reverse effect.

One of his first acts as Health Secretary was to pull back on the four-hour Accident and Emergency target, which has since been scrapped entirely. The result is that the number of patients waiting more than four hours has risen from 176,522 to 292,052, a 65 per cent increase and the highest level in five years.

At a time when the coalition is struggling to convince the public that the health service is "safe in its hands", a rise in waiting times is politically toxic. History teaches us that once governments lose trust on the NHS, they rarely win it back.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.