The performance of the NHS over the last winter was the worst for many years. Every week figures were published showing that hospitals the length and breadth of the country were failing to meet their targets for treating people in A&E.
Now the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has sprung into action to make sure this does not happen again. Not by actually improving the service but by changing the reporting of A&E waiting times so that they will be monthly rather than weekly.
This coming winter, queues at A&E could be just as long - or possibly even longer - but Mr Hunt is gambling that it will look better because there will only be three lots of bad news, rather than twelve.
There are indications that, if this doesn’t work, ministers are looking at relaxing the waiting time standard. Again, the service won’t be any better but, because targets are being met, it won’t look as bad.
The Government have already done this once. They reduced the Labour Government’s target of 98% of patients being seen within 4 hours to 95%. It is this lower target that hasn’t been met.
Virtually no hospitals would have met the 98% target at any time over the past winter.
Worrying as the performance of the NHS was over winter, it would have been much worse if hospitals had stuck to their budgets. NHS trusts overspent by £822million in the last financial year, with the Government turning a blind eye in the run-up to the election.
A large part of this overspend is down to hospitals’increased staffing levels following the Mid Staffordshire scandal. The problem is that not enough nurses and doctors are being trained to fill all these posts so hospitals are having to employ them through agencies. This is a lot more expensive.
Now the election is out of the way, the Government needs to save money. Again, it is taking the easy way out and scrapping the guidance on safe staffing numbers. The number of doctors and nurses will fall, agency fees will be cut and Jeremy Hunt is crossing his fingers that another care scandal doesn’t emerge as a result.