Every day seems to bring new crushing evidence of the immense strain facing the NHS and social care. Missed key targets have become the norm rather than the exception; A&E is bearing the brunt of cuts to preventive and community services; and few were surprised when NHS trusts recently revealed a record deficit of £2.45 billion.
After hearing anecdotal accounts of ambulances queueing up outside A&E departments due to a lack of available beds in my own county of Norfolk, I decided to investigate the true scale of the problem across the whole country by submitting Freedom of Information requests to each Ambulance Trust in England.
What I discovered was far more shocking than I had feared. More than 10,000 patients were stuck in an ambulance for more than two hours waiting to be handed over to hospital staff last year – a staggering four-fold increase over just three years. The number of people having to endure waits of more than an hour before being admitted has almost trebled in the same period.
In total, almost 400,000 hours were wasted in the last year alone due to handover delays of more than 15 minutes, the national target for getting patients out of the ambulance and into the care of A&E staff. That’s equivalent to 16,554 days of patients waiting in limbo while ambulance crews and vehicles are unnecessarily tied up, unable to respond to new emergency calls.
These figures are disastrous and totally unacceptable. The situation has rapidly deteriorated over the last three years, and is only going to get worse. Behind every statistic is a person in need of acute hospital care, and they are being failed by a system brought to its knees by a desperate lack of resources.
It is hard to imagine just how traumatic it must be for a patient, having been rushed to A&E in urgent need of treatment, to then be left waiting for hours for the care they need. In a country as wealthy as Britain, it is unthinkable that anyone should have to wait outside an A&E department for more than 9 hours before being admitted. Yet that is the reality we find ourselves in. It’s an appalling reflection of the state of our health service.
The Conservative Government cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the existential challenge facing acute hospitals – and the health and care system more widely – and pin its hopes on herculean ‘efficiency’ targets as a substitute for proper investment. It’s time for the Treasury to decide whether its ideological austerity agenda can possibly justify the growing risk to patient safety in the NHS. Simon Stevens has started to concede that the NHS needs more funding than the Tories have committed to. That much is clear.
However, if the Health Secretary really wants to prove he is serious about championing patient safety and safeguarding our health and care services for future generations, he must bring together a Commission of independent and cross-party experts to design a new, long term financial settlement for the NHS and social care system.
The Government and the Labour frontbench have so far resisted these calls, but these figures highlight yet again how urgently such a Commission is needed. We are sleep-walking towards a severe crash in both the NHS and our social care services. Unless the Government wakes up to the scale of the challenge and grasps the nettle once and for all, it is patients who will continue to suffer. There can be no moral defence for that.
* Norman Lamb is MP for North Norfolk and was Liberal Democrat Minister of State at the Department of Health until May 2015