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20 April 2011

The coalition’s NHS headache gets bigger

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

By George Eaton

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.

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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.