Jeremy Hunt has been accused of “watering down” a landmark A&E target in an an effort to mask the NHS winter ‘crisis’, as the Health Secretary told patients to stop people turning up at A&E unnecessarily.
Doctors last weekend warned the NHS was “on its knees” amid A&E departments closing their doors, deaths on wards and even the Red Cross being called in to help cope. The charity called the situation a “humanitarian crisis”.
Today, the Health Secretary appeared before MPs in the House of Commons, and suggested the NHS’s four-hour waiting time commitment should only apply to “urgent problems”.
The remark was seized on by Labour politicians as a sign the flagship pledge established under Tony Blair would be reformed.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth told HuffPost UK it was an “insult” to blame patients for turning up at A&Es.
However, Department for Health sources denied Hunt was “scrapping the target” but did say other countries do not have as many people turning up at A&E that don’t need to be there.
Hunt’s most striking phrase was his call for an “honest discussion with the public about the purpose of A&E departments” - making clear he thinks people are mis-using the service.
Critics will point out that many seeking care at A&E struggle to get an appointment with a GP, which in turn is the Government’s responsibility.
“It is clear we need to have an honest discussion with the public about the purpose of A&E departments.
“There is nowhere outside the UK that commits to all patients that we will sort out any health need within four hours.
“Only four other countries - New Zealand, Sweden, Australia and Canada - have similar national standards which are generally less stringent than ours. This government is committed to maintaining and delivering that vital four hour commitment to patients.
“But since it was announced in 2000, there are nearly nine million more visits to ours A&Es - up to 30% of whom NHS England estimate do not need to be there, and the tide is continuing to rise.
“So if we are going to protect our four hour standard, we need to be lear it is a promise to sort out all urgent health problems within four hours but not all health problems, however minor.”
In the Commons, Ashworth said Hunt is living in “la la land”, adding there was “no doubt that this current crisis could have been averted”.
He later told HuffPost UK:
“Patients quite rightly want reassurance that they or their loved ones will be looked after. To blame them for turning up at A&Es is an insult and is nothing more than blaming the public for the failures of Tory NHS mis-management.”
Some hospitals have already been given easier ‘bespoke’ A&E targets known as ‘improvement trajectories’, though trusts still get fined for missing the target.
In response, Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary Norman Lamb said the move was as a “slippery slope towards the downgrading of standards of care across the NHS”. He added:
“If the Health Secretary thinks it is acceptable for patients to be left waiting indefinitely in A&Es, or that this is a solution to the severe pressures facing the NHS, then he is sorely mistaken.
“The Government cannot just keep moving the goalposts as the health service struggles to cope with rising demand.
“The real ‘honest discussion’ that is needed is over how to fund the NHS and social care in the long term, including the possibility we may need to raise taxes to maintain the care and treatment patients deserve.”