A&E waiting in England hits new worst level

The NHS in England has missed its four-hour A&E wait target for the past three months with performance dropping to its lowest level for a decade.

Just 91.8% of patients were seen in four hours between January and March – below the 95% target.

That is the worst three-month performance since the target was introduced at the end of 2004.

The figures were widely expected as the weekly performance has been below 95% since September.

What does the target measure?

The four hours covers the point from a patient arriving at A&E to when they are either discharged, transferred to another part of the NHS or admitted into hospital for further treatment.

It was introduced at the end of 2004 in England when the NHS was told it had to see 98% of patients in four hours.

That was relaxed to 95% in 2010 on the advice of doctors – they argued the pressure to hit the target was distorting decision-making.

The rest of the UK also expects hospitals to see 95% of patients in four hours – although in Scotland it is an interim target with the aim of getting 98% of patients seen in that timeframe.

It is the third time the target – it is officially measured on a quarterly basis – has been missed under the coalition.

Other parts of the UK have also been missing the target during winter.

Figures released in Scotland showed that in the 12 months up to the end of February 92% of patients were seen in four hours.

Monthly waiting times have been even worse in Northern Ireland and Wales, although the latest yearly figures are not yet available.

There were nearly 5.4m visits to A&E during January to March – down slightly on the same period the year before.

Long waits were also seen in other parts of the hospital system.

A fifth of those who arrived at A&E – 1m – were admitted to hospital for further treatment.

Over 113,000 of those admissions waited over four hours for a bed – known as a trolley wait. That is double the number from the January to March quarter in 2014.

Labour immediately linked the figures to cuts in GP services - the topic of their latest election poster.

The poster reworks the Conservatives’ “Labour isn’t working” image of 1979 by depicting a huge queue outside a waiting room with the title: “The doctor can’t see you now.”

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said: “After five years of David Cameron, A&E waits are at their worst level for a decade and patients are finding it harder and harder to see a GP.”

A Conservative spokesperson said: “A&E units across the UK faced unprecedented demand this winter, but English A&Es see 3,000 more patients a day within four hours than in 2009, and perform better than Scotland, Northern Ireland and Labour-run Wales, so it is completely wrong for Labour to try to turn this into a political football.”