The real root of the A&E crisis lies far beyond the wards

Jeremy Hunt and David Cameron both brushed off Labour's concerns over the A&E crisis as political hot air today – they do so at their own peril.

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How restful it must be to be Jeremy Hunt. Lesser health secretaries would regard the NHS’ worst ever A&E performance happening on their watch as a damning indictment. More insecure an operator might take the calling of an urgent summit to discuss the unfolding crisis as a sobering reflection on their own ability.

Perish the thought. Outcry from Labour over the alarming figures is merely “an example of the politicisation of the NHS that people find so distressing,” he said, during an urgent question session called today by Labour in the hope of prising some answers from him.

Since the figures were published yesterday the Tories have done everything but accept them for the depressing landmark they are. They have continuously blamed unprecedented demand from an ageing population for the surge, combined with the traditional winter spike in admissions.

Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that A&E attendance in England was actually higher over the summer than the “unprecedented demand” in December that has led to this crisis. But let’s leave that to one side.

Even accepting that overall admissions are increasing, it’s facile of Hunt to blame increasing demand on an ageing population alone. Accident and emergency is not an island, entire of itself. Cut the wider social and welfare system, squeeze GPs, and enforce a hugely wasteful internal market - as this government has done compulsively - and A&E figures will go up, hospitals will be less able to cope with them.

Yet in today’s session a question from Labour MP for Rother Valley Sir Kevin Barron, over whether he thought cuts to social care in Rotherham has “helped or hindered the situation” locally was just as nonchalantly brushed aside.

As National Health Action party founder and chair Clive Peedell tells me this morning: “Wealth inequality leads to health inequality. Austerity increases demand on the system; people become less well”.

Andy Burnham understands this. In today’s session he put it to Hunt that to address the crisis the issue must be discussed in the context of the local authority, welfare and social-care cuts which, he said, “are a root cause of the pressure on hospitals”.

Burnham is absolutely right to call for a summit to develop a “coordinated plan” that involves “all public services affected”. But it will not solve the looming crisis that even Jeremy Hunt must know is going to get worse in the coming weeks and months, despite, he said today, the fact that he has been planning for this eventuality since March.

Hunt’s dismissal of Labour’s concerns over the A&E crisis as being merely political reflects a galling lack of concern or understanding for what is a deeply serious and worsening situation.

There’s something tragically ironic in accusations of politicisation from a party that has had a video entitled "David Cameron gets emotional as he talks about the importance of the NHS to his family" pinned to the top of its health team’s Twitter feed since 1 October. It would be funny, if it weren’t so very serious.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.