Figures showing January was the second-worst month on record for A&E waiting times in England is “hard evidence on just how bad a winter the NHS is having”, a leading expert has said.
NHS England statistics released on Thursday showed that 85.3% of patients were seen, treated or discharged within four hours in January – well below the 95% target.
Figures also showed 1,043 patients waited more than 12 hours from the “decision to admit to admission” – and some 81,000 waited four hours.
The equivalent figures for last January – previously the highest on record – were 989 and 79,551.
The latest figures are a slight improvement on December 2017, when 85.1% of people - the worst month on record - were seen within four hours.
John Appleby, chief economist of the Nuffield Trust health research group, said: “Today’s figures provide hard evidence on just how bad a winter the NHS is having. These are the highest numbers since records began.”
Appleby continued: “A year ago we warned that corridors had become the new emergency wards. It is deeply concerning that 12 months on the position has worsened, with many harrowing reports of patients being treated in busy corridors by stressed and overworked staff.
“Meanwhile waits for planned care are at their longest for nine years. Every part of the NHS is creaking at the seams. It is time to face facts and offer sustainable funding increases to the health service.”
Hospitals remain close to capacity with 95% of beds occupied last week.
NHS England defended the figures, saying they were an improvement on December and came as A&E units were besieged by patients suffering from the flu.
A spokesperson said: “Despite the worst flu season in seven years, A&E performance improved this month. It was better than both the month before, and was better too than the same time last winter. This was partly helped by the fact that NHS-related Delayed Transfers of Care fell to their lowest in four years freeing up beds for patients needing emergency hospitalisation.”
The NHS pointed out that more than 1.7 million patients were admitted, treated, transferred or discharged within four hours in January – up 92,354 or 5.7% on the same month last year.
“We continue to see the vast majority of patients within four hours with 88% of people seen within this time in the third quarter of 2017-18,” a spokesperson said, adding that 2,000,449 people attended an A&E in January – 5.5% more than during the same month last year.
Further, the spokesperson said, there were 526,000 emergency admissions last month, 16,964 per day, and a 6.8% jump up on the 15,879 per day in January 2017, “and is the highest number of emergency admissions in a month since records began in August 2010”.
Nick Scriven, president of the Society of Acute Medicine, said in a statement: “The last six weeks has seen the acute services of the NHS under a sustained period of stress due to ‘normal’ winter pressures along with a surge in influenza.
“Neither of these were unpredictable but both have combined to cause the issues that have been widely reported across the country.
“Last year we coined the phrase ‘eternal winter’, but the last month and a half has shown an even steeper decline in performance.”
A spokesperson for the Royal College of Surgeons added: “These performance figures show just how tough it was for hospitals this winter, with further lengthening of waiting times in A&E despite cancellation of planned surgery to free up capacity.
“Surgeons and other frontline NHS staff are working tirelessly to provide the best care possible to patients. But today’s figures show that these short term measures to create extra capacity in the NHS are insufficient to meet NHS performance targets. We currently do not have adequate funding or capacity in our health or social care services and we need to urgently find a long-term solution.”