The NHS’s winter crisis has been laid bare at one of the worst performing A&E units in the country, with patients telling HuffPost UK they are waiting for care up to three times longer than the official four-hour waiting time.
Waits of around 12 hours was just one of the concerns among anxious patients at Hillingdon Hospital’s A&E, where on Thursday afternoon the waiting area was crowded, with mothers comforting screaming toddlers and patients looking up from their mobile phones hopefully whenever a nurse or doctor walked by.
The greater London hospital emergency department is the second worst performing major A&E unit in England, according to NHS England figures published today, and those waiting to see doctors and nurses told HuffPost UK they had “never, ever seen it like this before”.
The damning data showed that nationally 85.1% of A&E patients were seen within four hours in December 2017, falling significantly short of the NHS target of 95%. This means that 300,000 patients waited too long for care.
HuffPost UK spoke to patients waiting to be seen at Hillingdon Hospital’s A&E unit on Thursday.
Debbie Howells was at the department with her daughter, Cassandra.
Cassandra, 28, came to A&E because she is accumulating fluid in her stomach. She says she is in “agony”, but has been waiting to see someone for nearly three hours when HuffPost UK speaks to her.
Cassandra says she was in hospital for several days last week and was discharged on Monday, but she is still accumulating fluid in her stomach, causing pain and discomfort.
After calling the ward today (Thursday) she was advised to come into A&E.
Cassandra says she waited 12 hours in A&E last week: “I got here at 2pm and I didn’t get my bed until 2am.”
“People were sitting on the floor. There wasn’t a space anywhere. People were all here (signals down the corridors), everywhere... everywhere you looked,” Debbie adds.
“I felt sorry for the staff, they were brilliant. There were 15 patients waiting for beds but there were no beds available. People were discharging themselves.”
The 55-year-old adds: “Two people left but they were advised not to because they needed operations and they discharged themselves.”
A&E workers told HuffPost UK this week that pressure on the frontline is so intense that staff are at “breaking point”, with some doctors and nurses suffering from anxiety and depression as a result.
Debbie says she has visited Hillingdon A&E many times because she has a large family and lives in the area, but that she’s never seen any other year as busy as it has been this winter.
“This is the worst ever... I have never, ever seen it like this before.”
When asked whether they are shocked that Hillingdon has the second worse waiting times for A&E in England, Debbie says: “It’s always packed, always. The whole week that my daughter was in... every single day it was packed.”
At 2pm on a Thursday afternoon, about 80% of the seats in the waiting area at the hospital are taken.
Most of the chairs are occupied with people, all of whom are a range of ages.
Some mothers hold screaming toddlers, trying to calm them, while others are in hospital gowns having been assessed and waiting for their next consultation.
As doctors and nurses sporadically enter the waiting area, most of the patients look up expectantly hoping they will be next.
Although the waiting room is very full, with some people standing, Cassandra and Debbie both say that today is the emptiest they have seen it this winter.
“I don’t know how the staff cope. I really feel for the staff, I really do,” Debbie says: “There’s nothing they can do.”
Worst-performing major A&E departments
(Percentage of patients seen within four hours - NHS England target is 95%)
Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust - 40.1%
The Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust - 57.6%
Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust - 57.8%
London North West Healthcare NHS Trust - 58.7%
University Hospitals Of North Midlands NHS Trust - 59%
The figures published on Thursday show how A&E wards are struggling appreciably more than a year ago.
In December 2016, 86.2% of A&E patients were seen in time within four hours, meaning the NHS success rate has fallen by 1.1% in just 12 months.
Levels have only dipped so low once before since monthly reporting on the four-hour target was introduced in 2010, with rates also reaching 85.1% in January 2017.
Despite Hillingdon’s problems, last week health secretary Jeremy Hunt visited Hillingdon Hospital A&E, which is located in Boris Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and chatted to “fantastic staff”.
Patients at the hospital also praise staff, despite their frustrations.
Dorothy Edgar, 70, from Hounslow, was told to come to A&E by her doctor this morning as she needed an intravenous drip because she was dehydrated. She says she has been in pain since Saturday.
“My daughter keeps saying to me ‘you got to go to the hospital, mum, you got to go to the hospital’, but I didn’t want to come to the hospital.”
When asked how long she said she had been in A&E for she said: “It feels like hours but it’s probably more like one or two.”
She says she was seen much quicker last time she was at Hillingdon A&E, which was in September last year.
For many waiting in the bustling department there is a sense of resignation.
Many people say they expect to be waiting several hours before they will be seen by a nurse or doctor.
Some have even decided to have a nap before their turn comes, others say they are scared to do this in case they miss their name being called.
Maureen Silver, who lives in Hillingdon, says she is “not really surprised” that Hillingdon A&E is the second worst in the country for waiting times.
“You just got so many different people coming for different things,” she says.
Maureen is concerned about her immune system and is at A&E for a urine test. She says today she has been waiting longer than two hours but on New Year’s Eve she was waiting four times as long.
“Two hours ago it was quite busy, most of the seats were taken but it wasn’t packed - not like New Year’s Eve when it was as very busy.
“It was like a party but there’s no party in here, everybody is coughing and spluttering.”
The 57-year-old says she arrived at A&E on New Year’s Eve at 1pm and left after 9pm.
Speaking about the wider problem of long waiting times, Maureen says: “There is a knock-on effect when people can’t get appointments with their GPs. But you’re ill, or your child’s ill, so what do people do, because they are really worried about their child? It’s a knock-on effect and causing chaos.”
She adds: “It’s a shame about the volume and the doctors. I wouldn’t want to be a doctor now. What are we going to do when we don’t have anyone to look after all of us?”
HuffPost UK has contacted the Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust for comment.
Earlier today the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We know the NHS is extremely busy, which is why it was given top priority in the recent Budget with an extra £2.8 billion allocated over the next two years – and despite the extra pressure that comes with winter, including rising flu levels, hardworking staff treated 55,328 people within four hours every single day in December - 1,272 more each day than in the same month the previous year.
“The Government also supported the NHS this winter with an additional £437million of funding.”